John Heffern, the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, on Tuesday expressed his overall satisfaction with the Armenian authorities’ handling of a weekend local election in Hrazdan denounced as fraudulent by the country’s leading opposition force.
Heffern, who personally watched voting in the central Armenian town, said it should have positive implications for the conduct of the parliamentary elections due in May.
“It was exciting to see strong political competition, and it was exciting to see in Hrazdan that there were two strong candidates,” he told journalists. “It was a hard-fought campaign and the results were close. So it was exciting to me … to see real political competition there, which I think is critical to the upcoming elections as well.”
“I was pleased to see that within the polling places it was orderly. Both sides confirmed, that the election procedures were being followed in a transparent and orderly way,” Heffern said.
“The other thing that worked pretty well -- again according to both sides -- was the early release of the voter lists … So there were several good, positive signs from the elections yesterday,” he added.
Official vote results showed Hrazdan’s incumbent pro-government mayor, Aram Danielian, narrowly defeating his sole challenger, Sasun Mikaelian of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK). Mikaelian refused to concede defeat, however, saying that the election outcome was essentially decided by widespread vote buying by the Danielyan campaign.
The HAK echoed these allegations in a statement issued late on Monday. It said the government-controlled election commissions in Hrazdan also flouted an Electoral Code provision that requires them to put seals on the passports of local residents taking part in the election. The HAK said the local polls held on Sunday in Hrazdan and 38 other local communities should be annulled for that reason alone.
However, the governor of Kotayk Province, of which Hrazdan is the capital, insisted on Tuesday that the ballot was free and fair. Kovalenko Shahgaldian claimed that this is why Mikaelian did not challenge the official results at the Central Election Commission in Yerevan or in courts.
Heffern urged the Armenian authorities to investigate all fraud allegations reported by the media. “I’ve seen in the press and I heard some talk of some violations and I would just hope, that anybody who has information on any violations inside or outside the polling stations would take that information to the authorities and I would expect that the authorities would follow up on any of those reports,” he said.
The diplomat also reiterated that the United States will do “whatever we can to contribute” to the freedom and fairness of the Armenian parliamentary elections. “The international community is very interested in Armenia’s democracy and we’re working with the Central Election Commission and the parties and the civil society and the press to make this election free and fair,” he said.
The U.S. State Department criticized the last Armenian parliamentary and presidential elections as “significantly flawed.” Heffern said last October that Washington expects Yerevan to make the May 2012 vote as well as a presidential ballot due in 2013 “the best elections ever.” Armenian leaders have since publicly promised that the upcoming vote will be the most democratic in the country’s post-Soviet history.
Eric Rubin, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, said in November that the Armenian government is serious about this pledge. “We think the government is not just saying all the right things, but we believe is committed to an open, free and fair process and to a real contest in the elections,” Rubin told a conference in Washington.