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Armenia: Election Observers Report Progress But Say The Country Is Still Not Meeting Democratic Standards

By Sterling Wright

An independent delegation sent to monitor Armenia's parliamentary election and referendum vote in May says the ballot process improved after presidential elections in March but is still not fully democratic. It also suggests that improprieties surrounded the simultaneous vote on constitutional reforms.

Washington, 11 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A team of international observers says the 25 May parliamentary elections in Armenia failed to meet international standards for democracy, although there were improvements in some areas.

The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, sponsored a delegation to monitor the vote for 131 parliamentary seats in the National Assembly.

The delegation concluded the election was an improvement over the one that confirmed President Robert Kocharian in office 3 1/2 months ago. But it said that improprieties, a failure to inform the public about election issues, and an atmosphere of "cynicism, frustration, and anxiety" continued to mar the process.

The parliamentary elections were also criticized by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe.

The NDI delegation was led by Jeanne Shaheen, a former governor of New Hampshire. She and her colleague, Alec Frick, presented their findings in Washington this week. Shaheen said, "It was very clear to everyone on the team that, while there had been some improvement, this election did not meet the test of a free, democratic election."

The two said opposition parties were actively engaged in the campaign. Civic organizations also mobilized to monitor the process, and fewer incidents of violence occurred than in past elections. But they said there were still acts of violence, coercion, ballot stuffing, and widespread vote-buying.

They also reported that one-third of opposition candidates were either stricken from the ballot or withdrew from the race amid reports of bribery and intimidation. In addition, remaining candidates for the local seats were increasingly represented by wealthy businessmen.

Frick said a legal framework for conducting democratic elections exists in Armenia but that the political will to implement the law is lacking. He said election fraud continues to be committed with impunity.

On a positive note, Frick said media coverage had improved. He said political candidates engaged in televised debates sponsored by NDI, and public television provided free and "relatively balanced" news coverage of the major parties.

On the other hand, he said private media outlets were biased toward pro-government parties, and intimidation of journalists had resulted in self-censorship.

Despite these drawbacks, he concluded the process was more legitimate than in the past. "Throughout the period, right up until 25 May [election day], there was not the same tension and fear that existed during the presidential election," Frick said.

A constitutional referendum was also held. But according to the report, state media did not present the issues and only announced the referendum seven weeks before the vote.

Emil Sanamyan, a representative from the Armenian Assembly of America, attended the briefing and later commented to an RFE/RL correspondent that had the referendum passed, it would have abolished the president's ability to dissolve parliament and increased judicial power at the expense of the presidency. Additionally, a ban on dual citizenship would have been lifted, which he said is a critical issue for the Armenian diaspora.

Critics, however, say the constitutional reform would have given Kocharian the ability to appoint more top government officials without the approval of parliament.

Nelson Ledsky, the director of NDI's Eurasia Team, participated in the briefing, saying the Armenian government "staged and faked" the referendum in order to appear compliant with European Union demands. He said the government "inflated the number of parliamentary votes and deflated the votes for the constitutional referendum to the point that it failed."

Ledsky added, "This was, I think, done mechanically, deliberately, and nastily by the government of Armenia so as to be able to tell the European community, 'See, we tried to get these changes made in our constitution, but our people wouldn't allow it.'"

Sanamyan disputed Ledsky's claims, saying that although a majority voted for the referendum, there were not sufficient votes to pass the needed participation threshold. He said it was a "mistake" to hold parliamentary elections and the referendum at the same time.

Despite these disappointments, Ledsky said there is reason to be hopeful about Armenia's political processes.