International observers gave a mixed assessment of Armenia’s parliamentary elections on Monday, praising the pre-election environment in the country but reporting irregularities in a “significant number” of polling stations on voting day.
In their preliminary findings that clearly fell short of the Armenian government’s expectations, the nearly 300 observers mostly deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) avoided stating whether the vote was democratic.
“Armenia deserves recognition for its electoral reforms and its open and peaceful campaign environment but in this race several stakeholders too often failed to comply with the law and election commissions too often failed to enforce it,” said Francois-Xavier de Donnea, a Belgian parliamentarian who led head short-term OSCE monitors. “As a result, the international commitments to which Armenia has freely subscribed were not always respected.”
“The election campaign was open and respected fundamental freedoms, and the media offered broad and balanced coverage during the official campaign period,” said Radmila Sekerinska, an observer mission leader representing the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). “Unfortunately, this was overshadowed by concerns over the accuracy of voter lists and violations of the Electoral Code that created an unequal playing field.”
Representatives of smaller monitoring teams deployed by the European Parliament and the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) agreed with this conclusion. Emma Nicholson, who led the 27-strong PACE team, expressed concern over “reports of widespread interference with the running of polling stations, voters’ movement and casting of votes throughout the day by certain political parties.”
“The authorities must address this unacceptable behavior before the presidential election next year,” Nicholson told a joint news conference with de Donnea and Sekerinska.
The observers’ joint preliminary report on Sunday’s election similarly refers to “undue interference” in the voting process, presumably by activists of pro-government parties, among various violations. “While opening procedures were assessed positively in almost all polling stations observed, voting was assessed negatively in 10 per cent, which is considerable,” says the report. “Unauthorized people, mostly proxies, interfered in or directed the work of 12 per cent of the [precinct election commissions] observed,” it adds.
The observers assessed “negatively” ballot counting in almost one-fifth of the observed polling stations. “Unauthorized people participated in one in four counts observed,” they said. “International observers reported isolated cases of serious violations, such as falsification of results or protocols (four cases) or indications that ballot box stuffing had occurred earlier (five cases).”
The observer misson did not to clarify whether it thinks these and other reported violations influenced official vote results that gave a landslide victory to President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).
“It is not only outside of our mandate to comment on this, but it’s really technically difficult to assess whether these kinds of deficiencies or irregularities have changed the opinion of the voters,” said Sekerinska.
Vote buying was the principal fraud allegation voiced by the Armenian opposition even before the closure of the polls on Sunday evening.
In Sekerinska’s words, it was “very difficult” for the mainly Western observers to verify the vote buying claims. “Even people who have claimed that they were part of a vote buying scheme decided not to come forward with information and personal declarations,” she explained.
Opposition leaders also cried foul after it emerged on Sunday morning that ink stamps meant to guard against multiple voting routinely disappeared after being put on voters’ passports. The observer’s report notes in this regard that the special ink used for the procedure “should have remained visible for 12 hours but faded much faster.”
Armenia’s previous legislative polls held in May 2007 were judged by a similar OSCE-led mission to have been held “largely in accordance with international standards for democratic elections.” Western monitors gave a similar assessment of the Armenian presidential election of February 2008, which was marred by fraud allegations and a deadly government crackdown on the opposition.
The Armenian authorities have made no secret of their hopes to secure an even more positive international verdict on the latest vote. President Sarkisian and other top officials have repeatedly pledged to do their best to hold the most democratic election in the country’s history.
The observers were clearly more critical of the authorities’ election conduct this time around, however. When asked to sum up their findings, de Donnea said, “In some areas, these elections are better than the previous ones. In other areas, there is status quo and a potential for improvement. In other areas, there might be a setback and also a greater potential for improvement.”