Election experts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have given a critical assessment of Armenia’s recent constitutional referendum, singling out “serious problems” with vote counts at polling stations visited by them.
In a report issued at the weekend, they also criticized the Armenian authorities for using “considerable public funds” to secure a disputed “Yes” vote for President Serzh Sarkisian’s constitutional amendments.
The OSCE’s vote-monitoring arm, the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), did not deploy a full-fledged observer mission in Armenia for the December 6 referendum, dispatching instead a team of four experts in late November.
The experts stressed that they monitored the vote only in a small number of polling stations and thus “did not conduct a comprehensive and systematic observation of referendum day proceedings.”
“The voting process at the polling stations observed by the OSCE/ODIHR [referendum expert team] was generally quiet and voting procedures were mostly followed,” reads their report. “However … the voters’ ID cards were not stamped, which led to inconsistent application of safeguards against multiple voting.”
The experts attended the counting of ballots at two polling stations and claimed to have witnessed “significant interference” in the process by proxies representing Sarkisian’s ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). At one of those polling stations, this resulted in a “manipulation of the results … in favor of “Yes” vote.”
“In particular, some valid “No” ballots were removed in an unauthorized manner and then returned as invalid ballots or placed in the wrong piles,” says the report. In the other electoral precinct, it adds, “procedural mistakes led to invalidation of many valid “No” votes.”
The report goes on to caution that the small OSCE team was “not in a position to determine whether the identified shortcomings represent more than isolated cases of malpractice.”
The experts also noted the fact that many senior state officials -- among them the chiefs of Sarkisian’s staff and the presidential Oversight Service, government ministers and all regional governors -- were actively involved in the “Yes” campaign.
“Since all these officials are paid from the state and local budgets, considerable public funds were used for “Yes” campaign, challenging paragraphs 7.6 and 7.7 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document and other international obligations,” they said.
Sarkisian’s press secretary, Vladimir Hakobian, on Monday dismissed this criticism, arguing that Armenian law does not bar those officials from participating in election or referendum campaigns. In comments to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), Hakobian also insisted that the senior presidential aides did not use public resources for promoting a “Yes” vote.
The Sarkisian administration and its political allies maintain that the referendum was free and fair, denying fraud allegations made by opposition groups, non-partisan observers and some media. A coalition of Armenian civic groups that deployed hundreds of such observers last week stood by its conclusion that the referendum was rigged by the authorities.
The United States and the European Union have urged the authorities to investigate “credible” fraud allegations in earnest and take other steps to ensure the proper conduct of Armenia’s next parliamentary elections due in May 2017.
The OSCE experts believe that the authorities have so far failed to accept corresponding proposals made by the ODIHR. “The conduct of the referendum reflected the absence of meaningful actions over the previous three years to address prior OSCE/ODIHR recommendations to improve confidence and public trust in the electoral process, including by improving accuracy of voter lists, preventing misuse of public resources in campaigns, and strengthening safeguards against voting day irregularities,” says their report.