The Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities (CLRAE) deployed the largest international mission, consisting of 12 members, to monitor the polls. They claimed to have visited about half of more than 400 polling stations across Yerevan on election day.
“The overall organization of the elections has been broadly carried out in compliance with European standards,” Nigel Mermagen, the British head of the mission, said, presenting its preliminary assessment of the polls. “In this respect, the election observation mission of the Congress noted a considerable step forward in comparison to the local elections which took place in Yerevan in September 2008.”
Mermagen did not elaborate on irregularities witnessed by members of his team, saying that they will be detailed in a final election report to be submitted to the CLRAE by October. More importantly, he made clear that the Europeans believe those irregularities did not call into question the legitimacy of the official vote results that gave a landslide victory to President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).
“They had some influence on the final results but not to the extent that the legitimacy of the final results was prejudiced, as far as we could see at this moment in time,” said the Council of Europe official.
The initial findings of the observer mission were in sharp contrast to widespread vote buying and other fraud reported by opposition representatives, mass media and Armenian civic groups that monitored the vote. “I have a single word for what we experienced yesterday: shock,” said Amalia Kostanian of the Center for Regional Development (CRD), the Armenian affiliate of the Berlin-based Transparency International. “We are shocked. And we are people who have long monitored elections.”
The CRD and the Vanadzor branch of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly jointly deployed 60 observers in Yerevan’s Malatia-Sebastia district, one of the main trouble spots during Sunday’s voting. Kostanian said their detailed election report will be released soon.
The far more positive verdict deliverd by the European observers was denounced by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian later on Monday. “Either they are making fun of us, or they are putting themselves in a ridiculous situation,” Ter-Petrosian told thousands of supporters rallying in Yerevan.
“If beating a journalist, bussing thousands of voters to polling stations, handing out vote bribes, bullying [opposition] proxies and commission members are European standards, then we don’t need those European standards,” he said. “Let them take those standards and apply to themselves.”
As he presented the findings of the Council of Europe observer mission, Mermagen was subjected to angry questioning by some of the journalists present at his news conference. One of them pointed out that the May 31 elections saw a record-high number of reported attacks on journalists.
“That is not of course, strictly speaking, within our competence as an election observation mission,” replied Mermagen. But, he said, these incidents will be “taken into account” in the preparation of the observers’ final report.
Another journalist, who was reportedly assaulted by government loyalists at a Malatia-Sebastia polling station visited by Mermagen, accused the observer mission chief of being “indifferent” to fraud and violence reports and avoiding conversations with opposition proxies. She even suggested that the observers prejudged the authorities’ handling of the elections even before election day.
“I am very disappointed by those remarks because certainly I can say they are not true,” said Mermagen.
In a statement issued less than two days before the opening of the polls on Sunday, the CLRAE expressed “deep concern” about “various, repeated reports of irregularities, and in particular intimidation tactics during the election campaign.” It requested urgent meetings with Armenia’s Deputy Prime Minister Armen Gevorgian and Garegin Azarian, chairman of the Central Election Commission.
“Our concerns were about the pre-election process at that stage,” said Mermagen. “Some of the events of yesterday addressed those concerns. Others of those concerns still remain. But that’s something which we have to give a detailed analysis to.” He did not elaborate.
Major Armenian elections have traditionally been monitored by hundreds of observers deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE and its Warsaw-based Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) did not observe the Yerevan polls, citing a lack of a formal invitation from the Armenian authorities.