By Emil Danielyan
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe urged the Armenian leadership Monday to ensure freedom and fairness of next month’s presidential elections as it launched a crucial monitoring that will determine, in large part, their international legitimacy.
Peter Eicher, head of a special OSCE observation mission for Armenia, said the authorities should prevent a repeat of serious irregularities that marred the previous vote held in 1998.
“We hope that this year’s mission will be able to report further progress and conclude that Armenia is now meeting its international and domestic obligations on democratic elections,” Eicher told a news conference in Yerevan, announcing the start of the observation process.
The mission will initially consist of 25 long-term observers from 16 OSCE member states to be joined by more than 250 short-term monitors on the eve of the polling scheduled for February 19. Its preliminary findings will be announced the next day.
“The mission will try to monitor all aspects of the election process, including the legislative framework, the financing of the election administration, the political campaign and the performance of the media,” Eicher said.
The upcoming ballot will be a serious test for the Armenian government’s stated commitment to democratization and integration into various European structures. It will be closely watched by the United States and countries of the European Union. Their reaction will primarily depend on the judgment of the OSCE monitors.
The latter had strongly criticized the previous presidential elections that catapulted Kocharian to power five years ago. Numerous reports of ballot box stuffing, vote result discrepancies and intimidation of opposition activists led the OSCE to conclude that the 1998 vote did not meet European standards.
Eicher singled out the transparency of the entire electoral process as a necessary condition for improving Armenia’s democratic credentials. “For example, one very simple thing to do is to publish in the newspapers the election results for every polling station,” he said.
Opposition candidates have alleged in the past that election results in Armenia are falsified mainly during the tabulation and counting of votes, with government-controlled electoral bodies fixing numbers in vote protocols. The authorities always denied the charges. However, they never publicized a complete breakdown of the results on a precinct-by-precinct basis.
The transparency of the tabulation process was high in the list of anti-fraud measures suggested by the Yerevan-based ambassadors of the U.S. and other Western powers in their joint letter to the Central Election Commission (CEC) last November. The diplomats also urged the CEC to address chronic inaccuracies in the voter lists and the continuing presence of unauthorized persons in polling stations.
Similar concerns were expressed by the U.S. National Democratic Institute which also plans to send a monitoring mission to Armenia. “The 2002-2003 election process will indicate which direction the country is headed,” NDI experts warned in a recent statement. “Should it fail to achieve its obligations to respect this fundamental right [to change government], those who seek to govern will again do so without a clear popular mandate and its attendant legitimacy.”