By Emil Danielyan
International observers made a largely positive assessment of the Armenian presidential election on Wednesday, while reporting serious problems during the counting of ballots and noting a continuing lack of public trust in the electoral process.
The preliminary findings of the main international vote-monitoring mission jointly deployed in Armenia by the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament came as a major boost to the international legitimacy to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s disputed election victory.
“The February 19 presidential election in the Republic of Armenia was administered mostly in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards,” the mission said in a statement. “The high-State authorities made genuine efforts to address shortcomings noted in previous elections, including the legal framework, and repeatedly stated their intention to conduct democratic elections.”
The report stressed that the 400 or so mostly Western observers found no major irregularities in “a large majority” of polling stations visited by them on Tuesday. But it said at the same time that the Armenian authorities have failed to address chronic problems such as a lack of “equal treatment of election contestants” and Sarkisian’s heavy reliance on his government levers.
“The conduct of the count did not contribute to reducing an existing suspicion amongst election stakeholders,” the observers said, adding that the process was assessed as “bad” or “very bad” in 16 percent of polling stations visited by them. “Some of our observers had very bad experiences during the vote count,” said Anne-Marie Lizin, a senior Belgian lawmaker representing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
According to John Prescott, Britain’s former deputy prime minister who led a delegation of Council of Europe parliamentarians in the mission, these problems prevented “the overall progress that we had hoped for.” “We are afraid that the problems we encountered yesterday, especially during the vote count, will do nothing to reduce this lack of trust among the Armenian people, despite the marked progress made in other areas of the elections,” he told a news conference.
“The final choice does of course lie in the hands of the Armenian people,” said Prescott. “Therefore, its trust in the electoral system is crucial to genuine democracy, and we feel that there is still a lot more to be done.”
Neither Prescott, nor other top members of the mission would say whether they think the reported violations may have affected the official vote results that gave a landslide victory to Sarkisian. “We don’t comment on the results,” said Lizin. “We comment on the process.”
The mission report did not give weight to reports of mass beatings of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s proxies, mentioning only “a few isolated violent incidents.” It also implied that vote buying was not widespread, contrary to opposition claims and media reports. The observers further said that they witnessed only one instance of ballot box stuffing.