Europe’s two leading democracy watchdogs that have harshly criticized last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections in Armenia circulated on Tuesday a long list of legal amendments which they believe could prevent a repeat of “widespread electoral violations.”
The measures, jointly proposed by experts from the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, would, among other things, weaken the Armenian authorities’ overwhelming control of electoral bodies, require the latter to provide more detailed vote tallies and assign serial numbers to all ballots.
They will be discussed at a three-day seminar which began its work in Yerevan on Tuesday. Senior government officials and representatives of Armenia’s main political groups are among its participants. Deputy parliament speaker Vahan Hovannisian assured them that the National Assembly will consider the recommendations.
The authorities, under domestic and international fire for their controversial handling of the 2003 polls, have pledged to address the criticism by enacting relevant amendments by the end of this year. The opposition shrugs off the pledge, however, saying that clean elections are impossible as long as they are in power.
The authors of the recommendations, representing the Council’s so-called Venice Commission and the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, admit that Armenia’s existing Electoral Code “constitutes in general the basis for the conduct of democratic elections” and was seriously violated in 2003. But they say further legal improvements would complicate electoral fraud.
The most significant of their 20-page written proposals deals with the formation of commissions administering the electoral process at all levels. The existing law empowers President Robert Kocharian to appoint three members to each of those bodies, while the political parties or blocs represented in parliament hold only one commission seat each. There are only two opposition groups in the National Assembly, giving Kocharian and his allies almost full control over the process.
The OSCE and Council of Europe experts believe that this mechanism is a “serious obstacle to the impartiality of the electoral administration” as it fails to ensure “adequate balance of major political interests.” “In order to reduce the president’s influence on the commission’s work, the [presidential] administration should not have more than one representative in each election commission,” they say in a report.
Another key recommendation seeks to address the chronic ballot box stuffing which was particularly widespread during the presidential elections of February-March 2003 that were judged undemocratic by both the OSCE and the Council of Europe. “The introduction of perforated ballots with serial numbers printed on the stubs should be considered,” the report says. “In this way, the number of ballots issued and used can be tracked and accounted for at all times.”
The report also says the electoral authorities find it more difficult to forge vote protocols if they are legally obliged to promptly publicize precinct-by-precinct breakdown of vote results. The detailed figures were not immediately made available to European observers during the 2003 elections, giving rise to widespread suspicion about serious fraud in the vote tabulation. The observers subsequently found major discrepancies in various-level polling data.
The Armenian authorities are also urged to toughen punishment for electoral crimes, rule out “widespread (ab)use of public resources in support of incumbents during the pre-election campaign period” and ensure a more objective coverage of opposition candidates by state-run media. In addition, the European experts suggest Armenians have their fingers marked with indelible ink after casting ballots to “reduce the risk of multiple voting” -- another major source of irregularities.