YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — International observers gave a mixed assessment of Armenia’s parliamentary elections this week, 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 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 stat- ing 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 heads a group of 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 over- shadowed 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 said at 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 percent, which is considerable,” according to the report. “Unauthorized people, mostly proxies, interfered in or directed the work of 12 percent of the [precinct election commissions] observed,” the report read.
Vote buying was the principal fraud allegation voiced by the Armenian opposition even before the closure of the polls on Sunday evening.
Sekerinska’s said 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 added.
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 sim- ilar 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. Sargisian 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. In summary, 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.”