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Armenian Authorities, Opposition At Odds Over How To Prevent Vote-Rigging

A woman casts her ballot at a Yerevan polling station in the parliamentary election of May 2007.

A woman casts her ballot at a Yerevan polling station in the parliamentary election of May 2007.

In early April, several prominent Armenian opposition parties signed an unprecedented pledge to work together to ensure that the country's May 6 parliamentary ballot is free and fair. President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) responded by proposing an alternative multiparty working group that would do the same, but no opposition party has accepted that offer.

Leading opposition politicians continue, moreover, to express skepticism with regard to public measures to ensure the accuracy of voter lists, while the OSCE/ODIHR Election Monitoring Mission has registered violations of the provisions of the Electoral Code governing campaigning.

It is a lamentable fact of political life in Armenia that the outcomes of successive elections over the past 15 years have been tampered with by the ruling elite to preserve its hold on power. Such manipulation has given rise to apathy and cynicism among voters, and apparently also to the assumption by the country's leaders that they can continue to engage in such malpractice without incurring international opprobrium.

That assumption has been reinforced by the cautiously worded and opaque verdicts of international election-monitoring missions. In particular the phrase "largely (or "mostly") free and fair" is inevitably taken out of context and cited both as conferring blanket approval and as inferring that those infringements that were registered could not have significantly altered the final results.

True, the initial assessment released by the election monitors the day after the vote generally also gives some idea of the nature and extent of irregularities registered both during the election campaign and during the voting and vote count. But official media and spokesmen tend to downplay or ignore such inconvenient and embarrassing details.

Yet according to Ambassador Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, who headed the mission to monitor the 2008 Armenian presidential election, "largely" and "mostly" are not synonyms in the parlance of the monitoring missions fielded by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). "When we say 'mostly,' this is not a compliment," Ahrens told RFE/RL's Armenian Service. He went on to explain that "I would say 'largely' is 80 percent to 90 percent, while 'mostly' can be 51 percent or 75 percent but not more."

No Repeat Of 2008

Ahrens also characterized the February 2008 presidential vote as more seriously flawed than the May 2007 parliamentary election.

Because of the still-unanswered questions about the fairness of the February 2008 vote, the need to preclude a repeat of the violations that engendered those doubts has emerged as a key political issue over the past year.

Sarkisian has personally pledged repeatedly that the ballot will be free and fair. Campaigning last week in Armenia's Aragatsotn province on behalf of his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Sarkisian told voters: "Never before have we had such favorable, normal conditions to hold free and fair elections that would lead to the formation of a government enjoying the trust of our people...and of our [foreign] partners. That is very, very important.... As president of the Republic of Armenia, I am deeply interested in the holding of good elections. That is my goal."

Such assurances cut little ice with the opposition, however. Cognizant of the possible negative international repercussions if the May 6 vote is assessed as less than free, fair, and transparent, four of the nine entities registered for the ballot formally pledged in early April to work together to prevent vote-rigging.

Representatives of Prosperous Armenia (BH), one of the two junior partners in the current coalition government; the Armenian National Congress (HAK) headed by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian; the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD); and the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party, the sole opposition party represented in the outgoing parliament, signed a statement underscoring how important it is that the May 6 vote should proceed "freely, fairly and transparently, in accordance with European standards," in order to create favorable conditions for resolving the problems the country faces.

But Zharangutiun Chairman Raffi Hovannisian distanced himself from that initiative 10 days later, after BH rejected his demand that it should explicitly denounce vote-buying and formally quit the coalition prior to the elections to demonstrate its commitment to ensuring the vote is fair.

Closing Loopholes

The most widespread and pernicious irregularities registered during successive national elections in Armenia fall into two broad categories. The first is the use of "administrative resources" by the ruling party, meaning intimidation of voters in general and public sector employees in particular, ballot-stuffing, and the casting of ballots for the ruling party (or that party's presidential candidate) in the name of people whose names remain on voter lists even though they are no longer resident in Armenia. Any citizen who has been absent from Armenia for over six months should theoretically be removed from the electoral rolls.

The second is vote-buying in the form of either financial or material incentives or under the guise of charitable activities. This approach has been particularly favored in previous parliamentary ballots by wealthy businessmen with links to the HHK running in single-mandate constituencies, generally in rural districts where poverty and unemployment are higher than in Yerevan. It was with a view to preventing the reelection of those "oligarchs" that Zharangutiun and the HHD campaigned unsuccessfully for the abolition of the 41 single-mandate constituencies.

As part of the authorities' efforts to narrow the leeway for malpractice, the police Department for Passports and Visas has revised voter lists and removed the names of more than 2,000 deceased voters. It later gave the total number of registered voters as 2,482,238.

But that revision failed to satisfy BH, the HAK, and the Dashnaks. They announced on April 27 they will appeal to the Constitutional Court to strike down a legal provision banning the publication of electoral rolls.

The opposition similarly doubts the authorities' willingness to abandon the practice of offering financial or material incentives to voters to cast their ballots for the HHK. Prominent HHD member Hrant Mararian complained to RFE/RL's Armenian Service that "The ruling force is not showing the will to hold truly democratic elections in our country.... Security bodies are not even trying to catch those who hand out vote bribes."

The OSCE/ODIHR Election Monitoring Mission in its second pre-election-day assessment noted the distribution of tractors in six provinces by a company owned by BH Chairman Gagik Tsarukian. BH headquarters denied this was a charitable action linked to the upcoming election.

It has been suggested that vote-buying by wealthy HHK candidates running in single-mandate constituencies could prove decisive in determining the election outcome, given that neither the HHK nor BH, seen as the two front-runners, are likely to win more than 30-35 percent of the proportional vote, under which 90 of the 131 mandates are distributed.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.