Representatives of nongovernmental organizations involved in election monitoring processes in Armenia are dismayed at the changes proposed in the draft Electoral Code that was revealed by the government earlier this week, describing them as “regression” from even existing standards.
The organizations that monitored last December’s constitutional referendum, which necessitates the current amendments, and pointed out large-scale violations and fraud during that vote argue that the government-proposed legislation does not address their concern and even makes things worse in terms of procedures compared to the current set of electoral laws.
Heriknaz Tigranian, of the Transparency International (TI) Anti-Corruption Center, outlined risks connected with a number of restrictions of the rights and opportunities of observers, proxies and media representatives. “It seems they are trying to keep the electoral process away from public attention. And whatever is not available for observation always raises suspicions. This document is full of such risks,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am).
Experts say that another snag in the presented draft is that the circle of organizations entitled to conduct election monitoring missions is limited. Under the proposed legislation, only international and local organizations that have in their charters clauses on democracy and human rights will be entitled to deploy observers.
Besides, while under the current laws authorities are to send invitations only to international observers, then now such invitations must be sent also to local observers.
“After the December referendum and our critical statements and report I’m thinking who will invite us the next time. The president, the parliament speaker, the prime minister, the Central Electoral Commission?” wondered the TI representative.
Leading human rights campaigner Levon Barseghian, who was part of the largest local observation mission, Citizen Observer, during last year’s referendum, also voiced doubts that organizations that have actively tried to preclude electoral fraud will be invited to monitor future elections should this provision be enacted.
The activist also mentioned another restriction in the proposed legislation concerning the presence of journalists and observers at polling stations. Thus, the draft Electoral Code suggests that the number of journalists and observers at one polling station at a time should not exceed eight. Practically, it may mean that no more that two or three media organizations will be able to cover elections at one place, considering that often media have to deploy crews, including reporters and cameramen.
“They could have written it down that among those eight they mean only representatives of NGOs and media loyal to the [ruling] Republican Party,” Barseghian commented.
Another risky novelty, according to experts, is entitling the head of a precinct commission to order the removal of an observer from the polling station if the latter “violates the provisions of the Electoral Code”. One of the provisions of the Electoral Code, meanwhile, is that observers shall be unbiased and shall refrain from supporting one political force or another.
Lawyer Norair Norikian questions this provision, saying that there will be elements of subjectivism in assessing the work of an observer. “The word ‘support’ can become a headache… An appeal by an observer to organize a normal electoral process may be construed as his support for a certain candidate or party,” he said.
Norikian also voiced concerns about the fact that unlike the current Electoral Code, the new draft does not expressly entitle foreign diplomats accredited to Armenia to conduct observation missions. “It will further cast a shadow on the general assessment of the electoral process,” he said.
Spokesman of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia Eduard Sharmazanov on Thursday said that the main debate around the draft Electoral Code will unfold in parliament and all stakeholders, including the country’s broader opposition and civil society, will be involved in the process.
“We should also listen to the opinions of civil society representatives and the opposition. One should not state categorically today that the views of the opposition and civil society have been rejected,” he said.
Earlier, Western governments and international organizations have urged Armenia to draft its next Electoral Code in an inclusive manner and adopt it with a broad consensus.
Representatives of the country’s leading opposition groups, meanwhile, have also indicated that none of their proposed anti-fraud safeguards have been addressed in the presented draft Electoral Code.