The Armenian authorities dismissed on Tuesday criticism of their handling of a recent constitutional referendum voiced by election experts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The European Union said, meanwhile, that President Serzh Sarkisian’s administration should “take seriously” the findings of the experts’ report released on Monday.
The report criticized the authorities for using “considerable public funds” to push through Sarkisian’s constitutional changes and said the four OSCE representatives witnessed serious fraud during vote counts conducted at two polling stations in Yerevan.
The OSCE team cautioned that its small size did not allow it to conduct a “comprehensive and systematic observation of referendum day proceedings.” Still, it concluded that the Armenian government has done little in the last few years to “improve confidence and public trust in the electoral process.”
“The report draws conclusions based on rumors and media stories containing information that … needs to be double-checked,” said Tigran Mukuchian, the pro-government chairman of Armenia’s Central Election Commission (CEC).
Mukuchian insisted that senior Armenian officials, including the chief of the presidential staff, did not abuse their positions while aggressively campaigning for a “Yes” vote in the December 6 referendum.
Hovannes Sahakian, a senior lawmaker from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), also rejected the criticism, saying that the OSCE monitors visited only a very small part of 2,000 or so polling stations across Armenia.
“The report seems to be based on media claims,” Sahakian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “The size and the mission of the OSCE’s referendum expert team was not such that they could have made an objective evaluation.”
Predictably, the OSCE report was welcomed by the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), a key constitutional reform opponent which claims that the referendum was rigged.
Aram Manukian, a senior HAK member, said the OSCE experts were right to allege misuse of government resources and see a lack of safeguards against multiple voting by government loyalists. “The number of polling stations visited by them doesn’t matter,” he said.
More importantly, the OSCE report was backed by Piotr Switalski, the head of the EU Delegation in Armenia. “Yes, the electoral process and legislation need improvements and the report is further proof of that,” he told reporters. “Take it seriously and do your homework.”
“The Armenian people and state will greatly benefit if these recommendations and critical comments are implemented,” Switalski said. He said this should be done in time for Armenia’s next parliamentary elections due in 2017.
“Without overcoming these shortcomings, there will be an atmosphere of suspicion and lack of trust, and Armenia’s international image will suffer from that,” warned the diplomat. He specifically stressed the need for adopting a new Electoral Code that would be acceptable to the opposition.
In Sahakian’s words, the Armenian authorities will “take into consideration” the OSCE experts’ recommendations when they start drafting the code later this month.