By Emil Danielyan
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe toned down its initial, largely positive, assessment of Armenia’s recent presidential election on Friday, citing serious irregularities that were witnessed by its observers after the closure of the polls.
In its final election report, the OSCE observer mission in Armenia said the freedom and fairness of the February 19 vote was “devalued” by fraud registered during the vote count and recount.
“While the 2008 presidential election mostly met OSCE commitments and international standards in the pre-election period and during voting hours, serious challenges to some commitments did emerge, especially after election day,” concluded the report.
“This displayed an insufficient regard for standards essential to democratic elections and devalued the overall election process. In particular, the vote count demonstrated deficiencies of accountability and transparency, and complaints and appeals procedures were not fully effective.”
The disputed election, which thrust Armenia into its worst political crisis in nearly a decade, was monitored by about 300 observers representing the OSCE’s Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Several dozen other observers were deployed by the parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE and the Council of Europe as well as the European Parliament.
In their joint statement issued on February 20, the mainly Western observers said the election was administered “mostly in accordance” with democratic standards. The preliminary verdict gave a major boost to the international legitimacy of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s election victory and was welcomed by the Armenian authorities.
But it sharply contrasted with local press reports of widespread vote buying, multiple voting and beatings of proxies of the main opposition candidate, Levon Ter-Petrosian. The latter refused to concede defeat and demanded a re-run of the vote. Tens of thousands of people attended his daily post-election demonstrations in Yerevan that were suppressed by the authorities on March 1.
The OSCE mission reiterated that voting was assessed overall positively in 95 percent of polling stations visited by the observers, something which it described as a “notable improvement” over the previous Armenian presidential election held in 2003. “However, intimidation and
attempts to manipulate the process were evident in some areas, and the authorities did not
adequately address these issues as they emerged on or after election day,” it said.
The report said observers saw busloads of people outside some polling stations and tried to clarify whether they were bribed to vote for a particular candidate. “In the vicinity of a polling station in Shengavit (Yerevan), IEOM observers saw voters receiving money from a man who was ticking entries from a list of names,” it said.
The mission stood by its earlier assertion that the vote count was “bad” or “very bad” in 16 percent of precincts observed. “Observers witnessed inconsistencies in determining valid votes, unwillingness to show marked ballots, attributing votes for one candidate to another, signing protocols before completing the vote count, signing blank protocols, changing data entered in protocols, and failure to display protocols publicly as required by law,” it explained.
According to the OSCE/ODIHR, further evidence of serious fraud came to light during vote recounts that covered about 7 percent of Armenia’s 1,900 or so electoral precincts. “The majority of recounts observed showed discrepancies and mistakes in the original count, some of them significant, or other serious problems occurred during the recount,” said the report.
The report also criticized the government-controlled Central Election Commission (CEC) for its handling of complaints filed by candidates. “The CEC considered them mostly in informal meetings to which proxies, observers and the media were not invited, and dismissed them without adequate investigation,” it said. “Consequently, candidates were not granted an effective means of redress.”
Another problem reported by the OSCE observers was Armenian broadcast media’s “negative” coverage of Ter-Petrosian that contrasted with their heavy promotion of Sarkisian’s presidential bid. The observers also said many local government officials actively campaigned for the establishment candidate while performing official duties. “There were accounts of local government employees and public-sector workers being obligated to attend Prime Minister Sarkisian’s campaign events,” read their report.
On the positive side, the report noted the fact that Ter-Petrosian and other opposition candidates were generally free to hold campaign rallies across the country. “The authorities made
efforts to provide a permissive campaign environment,” it said.
The report also contains a long list of recommendations which the OSCE/ODIHR believes would improve the conduct of future Armenian elections. The authorities in Yerevan have responded to similar recommendations in the past by making changes in the Election Code.
In a separate statement, Christian Strohal, director of the ODIHR, said further legislative changes alone would not address chronic electoral fraud in Armenia. “There is a sound legal basis for holding democratic elections in Armenia – the deficiencies noted in our report resulted primarily from a lack of determination to apply existing laws and rules effectively and impartially,” he said.