Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Saturday questioned the credibility of official results of Armenia’s presidential election, saying that President Serzh Sarkisian benefited from “implausibly high” voter turnout recorded in many precincts.
The OSCE’s election observation mission pointed to “a correlation between very high turnout and the number of votes for the incumbent.” “This raises concerns regarding the confidence over the integrity of the electoral process,” it said in a post-election interim report.
Citing the final results released by the Central Election Commission (CEC), the mission noted that more than 80 percent of eligible voters ostensibly cast ballots in 144 of the nearly 2,000 polling stations across Armenia. Sarkisian got over 80 percent of the vote in 115 of them, according to the CEC.
“In 198 out of the 303 stations where turnout was between 70 and 80 per cent, the incumbent received more than 70 per cent of the votes,” read the OSCE report. “Among 249 stations where turnout was below 50 per cent, Mr. Sargsyan received more than 50 per cent in 40, and [opposition candidate Raffi] Hovannisian received more than 50 per cent in 155.”
The mission did not say whether the official results in the precincts where it believes turnout was “implausibly high” could have seriously affected the nationwide vote tally. According to the CEC, Sarkisian won the February 18 ballot outright with 58.6 percent of the vote, followed by Hovannisian with 36.7 percent. The latter officially defeated the incumbent in over a dozen major urban communities, including Armenia’s second and third largest cities.
Hovannisian has rejected the CEC figures as fraudulent and claimed to have been the rightful winner of the vote. Both the CEC and the Sarkisian campaign dismiss the fraud allegations. They argue, among other things, that monitors from the OSCE and other European structures gave a mostly positive assessment of the election conduct in their preliminary findings released on February 19.
The observers concluded then that the vote was “generally well-administered and characterized by a respect for fundamental freedoms.” They also reported serious irregularities, notably the Sarkisian campaign’s misuse of administrative resources and government loyalists’ “undue interference” in the voting process. Still, the chief OSCE observer, Heidi Tagliavini, suggested that these violations did not affect the overall election outcome.
The OSCE mission’s latest report could overshadow the observers’ initial conclusion, which the United States and the European Union have cited in their guarded praise of the Armenian authorities’ handling of the presidential contest. The mission headed by Tagliavini is due to release a comprehensive final report within two months.
Not surprisingly, the Hovannisian campaign was quick to seize upon the questions raised by the Western observers regarding the official results. Speaking at a fresh rally held by the opposition leader in Yerevan on Saturday, senior members of his Zharangutyun (Heritage) party said the observers have given more weight to their claims that hundreds of thousands of non-existent votes were added to Sarkisian’s tally. Ruben Hakobian, Zharangutyun’s deputy chairman, claimed that voter turnout was grossly inflated in as many as 500 mainly rural precincts.
“It’s a more objective evaluation compared with the previous one,” Hovsep Khurshudian, the Zharangutyun spokesman, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Unfortunately, the observers … leave it to readers to draw conclusions,” he said. “But I think their message is quite clear and we can draw conclusions.”
Ara Babloyan, a senior lawmaker from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), insisted that the high turnout and percentage of votes for Sarkisian shown in the CEC data is not evidence of vote rigging. “After all, they [the Hovannisian campaign] had proxies in most polling stations and they didn’t voice any objections during the process,” he said.
Meanwhile, Tagliavini met Hovannisian on Saturday for a second time since polling day. A statement by the opposition candidate’s campaign headquarters said they discussed “the unpredictable situation of the post-election period.”
“Raffi Hovannisian presented his observations and the massive report of electoral violations and fraud registered by his campaign headquarters and independent observers,” said the statement. “Hovannisian and the ambassador [Tagliavini] discussed the possibility of disputing the election results in the Constitutional Court.”
Speaking at his rally later in the day, Hovannisian said he will announce on Monday whether he will appeal to the court to annul the election results. He again urged Sarkisian to recognize “the people’s victory” and indicated plans to keep up pressure on the Armenian government with more rallies in the weeks ahead. He scheduled his next rally in Yerevan’s Liberty Square for Tuesday.
“The Armenian people will celebrate our victory before April 9,” Hovannisian declared, referring to the date of Sarkisian’s planned inauguration for a second term.