By Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenia’s leading non-governmental organizations advocating political reform described on Tuesday the latest amendments to the Armenian electoral legislation as a sham, saying that the authorities will continue to fully control the conduct of all elections.
The Partnership for Open Society, a grouping of some three dozen NGOs, said the amendments approved by the Armenian parliament last week will in no way complicate chronic vote rigging in the country. It also slammed European experts for welcoming the changes as a step forward.
“The Partnership for Open Society is calling on the country’s authorities to reconsider the adopted law and bring it into full conformity with international standards for free and fair elections,” it said in a statement. The statement singled out legal provisions regulating the formation of various-level commissions holding elections.
The current Central Election Commission and its territorial divisions each have nine members, three of whom were appointed by President Robert Kocharian. The other commission seats are controlled by the six Armenian parties and blocs represented in the National Assembly. Only two of them are in opposition to Kocharian.
Kocharian will now be able to name only member of each commission, the two other seats being given to Armenia’s Court of Appeals and a non-partisan group of lawmakers loyal to the head of state.
“The mechanism for the formation of the commission set by the law does not make the electoral bodies impartial and balanced,” read the statement by the Partnership for Open Society.
“Given that the judiciary is still directly dependent on the executive branch, it is obvious that the president of the republic and the authorities as a whole will continue to control the entire electoral process,” one of the leaders of the NGO coalition, Hrair Tovmasian, told journalists. He said Kocharian, whose disputed reelection in 2003 was strongly criticized by Western monitors, will control at least two thirds of all commission members.
Tovmasian and another coalition leader, Vartan Poghosian, also argued that giving Armenia’s highest court representation in the electoral commissions contradicts a constitutional clause that bans judges from holding any other “state position.” The two men further criticized experts from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for reportedly concluding that the amended election is an improvement over its previous version.
Poghosian complained that the Venice Commission has itself admitted in its reports that Armenian courts are not independent. “We don’t see any logic here and we intend to convey our concerns and our statement to the Council of Europe so that they reconsider their approach and correctly assess the new mechanism for commission formation,” he said.
This is not the first time that the Partnership for Open Society criticizes the Council of Europe for its perceived leniency toward the Armenian authorities. Last year, for example, the NGOs criticized a resolution by the council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) which made a largely positive assessment of Yerevan’s human rights record.
Both the PACE and the Venice Commission have been a driving force behind the reform of Armenia’s Electoral Code. Leaders of the Armenian parliament’s pro-Kocharian majority say the latest amendments will make the next presidential and parliamentary elections more democratic.
But the NGO leaders disagree. Poghosian argued in particular that ballot papers no longer have to be signed by at least three members of a precinct election commission in order to be considered valid. He also noted that the Armenian military will still not be required to publicize the list of its eligible voters.
Multiple voting by army conscripts instructed by their superiors was reportedly commonplace in the past Armenian elections.