In a crucial boost for President Serzh Sarkisian, Western monitors gave on Tuesday a largely positive assessment of Armenia’s presidential election, saying that major irregularities witnessed by them did not affect its outcome.
“The February 18 presidential election was generally well-administered and was characterized by a respect for fundamental freedoms,” the most important international mission to monitor the ballot concluded in a preliminary report.
“Contestants were able to campaign freely. Media fulfilled their legal obligation to provide balanced coverage, and all contestants made use of their free airtime,” said the more than 300-strong mission mostly deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
“At the same time, a lack of impartiality of the public administration, misuse of administrative resources, and cases of pressure on voters were of concern. While election day was calm and orderly, it was marked by undue interference in the process, mainly by proxies representing the incumbent [President Sarkisian,] and some serious violations were observed,” added the observers, who also comprised lawmakers from the European Parliament and the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE).
“I want to congratulate the president and Armenia on the election,” Karin Woldseth, who led a team of two dozen PACE observers, told a joint news conference with two other mission chiefs.
“There is no doubt about the fact that improvements have taken place in the electoral process since the previous presidential election in 2008,” Woldseth said. “We have noted progress in many areas, including the media environment, the legal framework, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.”
Milan Cabrnoch, head of a European Parliament delegation that monitored the vote, likewise said that there were “no major difficulties in electoral procedures” on polling day. “Armenia has held two elections in less than a year and we have seen improvements in the process,” he said.
But Cabrnoch also noted a lack of “real competition” in the Armenian presidential race. “This was mainly due to the decision by three main parliamentary opposition parties not to nominate candidates,” he explained.
Woldseth downplayed the de facto opposition boycotts, however, saying that the vote was competitive as it involved seven candidates. “Armenia is on the right track to fulfill its obligation as a new and democratic country in Europe,” declared the Norwegian lawmaker.
Heidi Tagliavini, who led long-term OSCE observers, offered more guarded praise for the election conduct. Tagliavini listed “serious violations” such as multiple and group voting, identical signatures on voter lists and even ballot box stuffing. But she went on to stress, “Overall, they did not affect the outcome of the vote.”
The mission report says the European observers assessed the voting process negatively in 5 percent of polling stations visited by them on election day. Those included “numerous cases” of government loyalists “directing voters to vote outside polling stations” and “unduly interfering” in the work of precinct election commissions, says the 12-page report.
“Observers noted several indications of vote buying and observed two cases directly,” it adds. Armenian opposition and civic groups claim that the illegal practice was widespread in the latest and previous Armenian elections.
The mission report further points out that the special ink for stamping voters’ passports to prevent multiple voting “proved to be easily removable.” This was a key source of opposition complaints during Monday’s voting.
The report’s findings should prove decisive for the international legitimacy of Sarkisian’s disputed reelection. They will serve as a basis for the impending U.S. and EU reactions to the Armenian authorities’ handling of the election.
Both the United States and the EU said in the months leading up to the ballot that its proper conduct is essential for the success of the Sarkisian administration’s efforts to forge closer links with the West. The Armenian leader repeatedly assured them that it will be the most democratic in the country’s history.
Conversely, the report was certain to disappoint the Armenian opposition and sections of the civil society that believe the latest election was as fraudulent as the previous ones. That frustration manifested itself already on Monday as a group of young non-partisan activists furiously denounced the observers’ initial verdict during the news conference held by Tagliavini, Cabrnoch and Woldseth. The latter had to interrupt the event and resume it half an hour later.