Was Armenia's Parliamentary Election A Step Backwards?

Over the past year, Armenia's President Serzh Sarkisian repeatedly affirmed that he was intent on ensuring that the May 6 parliamentary ballot would be the most democratic in Armenia's post-Soviet history.

Over the past year, Armenia’s President Serzh Sarkisian repeatedly affirmed that he was intent on ensuring that the May 6 parliamentary ballot would be the most democratic in Armenia’s post-Soviet history.

Armenia’s foreign partners wholeheartedly supported that intention. U.S. Ambassador John Heffern told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service last fall that Washington was working with Yerevan to ensure that the 2012 parliamentary ballot and the presidential election in 2013 would be "the best elections ever and fully consistent with international standards."

The May 6 parliamentary ballot failed, however, to measure up to those expectations. Indeed, in two key respects it appears to have been more seriously flawed than the previous parliamentary election in 2007.

True, all eight parties and one bloc that sought to register succeeded in doing so, and were able to campaign freely.

But, as the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) noted in a press release on May 7, pressure on voters by local officials from Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and election commissions’ dismissal of many appeals and complaints "created an unequal playing field." 

There were numerous reports of vote-buying by the HHK.  Purportedly charitable activities by its coalition partner Prosperous Armenia (BH), including the distribution of some 500 tractors in rural areas by a company owned by BH chairman Gagik Tsarukian, were seen by international election monitors as incompatible with the new electoral code.

Inaccurate Electoral Rolls

In addition, continued problems arising from inaccurate electoral rolls compounded voters' lack of trust in the fairness of the election process.

On behalf of the Inter-Party Center for Public Oversight of the Elections established by BH, the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (HHD), 28 members of the outgoing parliament appealed late last month to Armenia’s Constitutional Court to lift the ban on publishing lists after the elections of those voters who cast ballots.

The Court rejected that appeal on May 5.
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Numerous procedural violations and glitches were reported on polling-day, including overcrowding at polling stations and what one international monitor described as "less than productive" attempts by domestic observers or proxies from the various opposition parties to assume duties that are the prerogative of precinct commission personnel.

At one polling station in Kotayk province, a precinct official invalidated ballot papers filled out by persons he suspected of voting for a party other than the HHK by placing them in the wrong ballot box. (Each voter was required to complete one ballot paper for the majoritarian candidate in his constituency and one for the nationwide party-list vote. They were to be deposited in separate ballot boxes.)

Disappearing Ink

The most publicized and potentially the most damaging glitch was the use of ink that faded within minutes to mark voters' passports to preclude multiple voting; it was supposed to disappear only after 12 hours. (Polling stations were open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.).

Central Election Commission Chairman Tigran Mukuchian's explanation that the ink faded only because the bottle had not been shaken vigorously before use was immediately shown to be spurious.

These problems with marking passports led the Inter-Party Center for Public Oversight of the Elections to release a statement while voting was still going on; saying that the legality of the poll was under threat.

The preliminary assessment by the IEOM was equivocal. It acknowledged the "open and peaceful campaign," but added that "several stakeholders" failed to comply with the revamped election law.

Specifically, it noted "organizational problems, undue interference in the process and cases of significant violations … in a significant number of polling stations visited."

Observers from the IEOM visited almost 1,000 polling stations in the course of the day, and gave a negative assessment of the voting that took place at 10 percent of them.  By contrast, in 2007, the IEOM described voting as "good or very good" at 94 percent of polling stations visited.

The vote count too was also assessed negatively this time in "almost one fifth" of the 102 polling stations where observers were present, compared with 17 percent in 2007.

Positive Spin

HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov sought to put a positive spin on the observers' evaluation.

He told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the negative assessment of the voting in 10 percent of the polling stations visited means that the vote was "flawless" in 90 percent of the 1,982 polling stations.

Preliminary results of the vote suggest that the HHK has increased its share of the parliament mandates, even though the three coalition members had signed a formal pledge in February 2011 not to seek to do so at each others' expense.

The HHK had 62 of the 131 mandates in the outgoing parliament. It has reportedly won in 32 of the 41 single-mandate constituencies, in addition to garnering 44.05 percent of the proportional vote. That translates into at least 40 of the 90 mandates allocated under the party-list system, giving a total of at least 72.

BH, which has 22 mandates in the outgoing parliament, is in second place with 30 percent of the proportional vote plus seven single-mandate constituencies.

The opposition HAK polled 7.07 percent of the proportional vote, winning parliamentary representation for the first time. The opposition Heritage party garnered 5.75 percent; the HHD received 5.69 percent; and the Law-Based State part, the third member of the ruling coalition, got 5.49 percent. All three were represented in the outgoing parliament.

The Communist Party of Armenia, the Democratic Party of Armenia and the United Armenians Party failed to get the minimum 5 percent of the proportional vote to qualify for parliamentary representation.

Voter turnout was measured at 62.2 percent, 10 percent higher than in 2007.

The Inter-Party Center for Public Oversight of the Elections has still not commented on the election outcome, possibly because the Central Election Commission has not yet made public the final results.

But senior HAK member Levon Zurabian branded the ballot "disgraceful," accusing the authorities of "resorting to the full range of falsifications" to remain in power.


Copyright (c) RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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