By Hrach Melkumian and Armen Zakarian
Campaigning for the Armenian parliamentary elections has not been marred by widespread irregularities, but it is not clear whether Sunday’s polls will be free and fair, the head of the largest international mission to monitor them said on Saturday.
“Whether or not these elections will meet international standards is still an open question,” Robert Barry, head of the observer mission deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told RFE/RL in an interview.
“The critical observations will have to be of how the balloting is going and how the election count is carried out,” he said.
The parliamentary elections, contested by 21 parties and blocs and about 280 individual candidates, are seen as yet another test of Armenia’s democratic credentials. They suffered a huge blow during the presidential election earlier this year. The two-round vote was described as deeply flawed by the OSCE – a criticism echoed by the United States. U.S. officials have said Yerevan could considerably improve its image in the West by holding a cleaner election this time around.
According to Armenia’s outgoing Deputy Foreign Minister Armen Martirosian, Yerevan takes those warnings seriously and has learned lessons from the ill-fated presidential race. “I think that appropriate conclusions have already been drawn,” Martirosian told RFE/RL. He also stressed that “integration into Europe” remains a key priority of Armenian foreign policy.
Barry, a career U.S. diplomat, refused to comment on what might await Armenia in the international stage if Sunday’s elections again fail to meet democratic standards. “Our job is only to observe and make our remarks public,” he said. “It’s up to others to draw conclusions.”
Barry described as encouraging the Armenian authorities’ decision to maintain transparent ballot boxes and their promise to promptly publish preliminary election results from all polling stations. He at the same time expressed concern at the authorities’ failure to bring to account any of the individuals involved in serious irregularities during the presidential election.
“There are a number of places where there were serious violations during the presidential elections,” he said “There have been no serious criminal prosecutions of people responsible for those violations. In some of those places, the same people are in charge of the polling stations.”
About 200 OSCE observers will be on hand to watch the voting and counting processes across Armenia. They will be joined by 24 officials from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). The OSCE and PACE teams will present a joint preliminary report to the media on Monday afternoon.
Barry said that the four-week election campaign, which officially ended on Friday, was on the whole more democratic than the one which preceded the presidential ballot. He said the OSCE observers have only detected several serious violations of Armenia’s election law, including instances of vote buying and intimidation of political opponents. He also complained that the electoral authorities were “stricter” towards opposition candidates by refusing to register several of them.