Armenian Elections: International Monitors look at the bright side, leaving the Armenians to deal with the dark side. Reply

photo: Ambassador Janez Lenarčič, the Director of ODIHR, observes voting in a polling station in the village of Balahovit during Armenia’s parliamentary elections, 6 May 2012. His presence as part of the mission was somewhat unusual. (picture courtesy of OSCE).

Most of the international observers who monitored the 6 May Parliamentary elections in Armenia decided in their preliminary findings to focus on the bright side of the process, although the more serious ones also highlighted serious problems and shortcomings.

Their reports paint a confused picture which reflects a flawed, but improved electoral process, and which has resulted in the government tightening its hold on parliament but with all opposition parties of any significance now represented in the legislature.

If Serzh Sargsyan had written on the back of an envelope prior to Sunday’s parliamentary election what he hoped the best possible result for him would be, then it would probably not have looked much different then the result that was officially announced after the elections took place.

His governing Republican Party of Armenia secured overall majority in the Parliament winning 44.05% of the vote in the election for the proportional list and 32 out of the 41 seats in the single seat majoritarian elections. His coalition partner, the Prosperous Armenia Party, which observers claim is under the “spiritual” if not actual influence of Armenia’s second President Robert Kocharian got 30.20% of the vote, and will be the second party in the parliament – respectable showing but with a safe distance in votes and seats from the President’s party, enough to be manageable. The third coalition partner the Rule of Law, secured 5.4% of the votes – something which surprised observers who expected it to disappear completely since it has long stopped being a relevant force in Armenian politics. Having just passed the 5% threshold (with 5.49% of the votes) the party will be in parliament and will remain a reserve, just in case for the ruling party. The Dashnak ARF and Heritage secured 5.73  % and  5.79% respectively. They are parties of the chattering classes with excellent connections with the Armenian diaspora communities world-wide, as well as among western circles. Their presence in the parliament is essential for Armenia’s international image.

And then there is the Armenian National Congress whose struggle from the squares after the flawed 2008 presidential elections had unsettled the Armenian leadership and which secured 7.1% of the vote. Having run as a bloc of parties rather than one it had to overcome a higher threshold of 7%. It did just that, enough to be in the tent and not throwing stones from outside, but with the barest minimum of votes to do so.

The fact that the result is so convenient for the government, and the unlikely situation that the three parties who have together governed Armenia over the last five years secured 79.74% of the vote in the election, on the same day that other ruling parties in Europe were swept away by popular discontent, are reasons for one to wonder about it all, but not enough to evaluate the elections negatively on. For that a more detailed assessment is required.

The international monitoring and observation effort, spearheaded by the OSCE/ODIHR mission and including the Council of Europe and the European parliament reported back less than  twenty-four hours after the polls closed, at a crowded press conference in Yerevan’s main hotel. Those speaking on behalf of the international community tried to sound upbeat and positive.

The main spokesperson, Belgian parliamentarian Francois Xavier de Donnea, representing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly left us with the comforting thought that the elections “were a long way from elections during Soviet times”, but did not answer a direct question as to whether the elections met international standards.

The comment came right at the end of the ninety minute press conference during which the representatives of the international institutions concerned largely waffled their way through some tough questions by the Armenian media. A more illuminating, Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, they issued later stated that:

“The 6 May 2012 parliamentary elections in the Republic of Armenia were characterized by a competitive, vibrant and largely peaceful campaign. At the same time, an unequal playing field due to violations of campaign provisions and cases of pressure on voters, as well as deficiencies in the complaints and appeals process were causes for concern. The elections were held under an improved legal framework and administered in an overall professional and transparent manner prior to election day. Election day was generally calm and peaceful, but marked by organizational problems and undue interference in the process, mostly by party representatives. The freedoms of assembly, expression, and movement were generally respected and candidates were, for the most part, able to campaign freely. The general lack of confidence among political parties and the general public in the integrity of the electoral process is an issue of great concern, despite all stakeholders underscoring their commitment to hold elections in accordance with international standards.”

We are promised more in a detailed final report which will be published in two months time. The Election was also monitored by a mission of the Commonwealth of Indepenedent States “The polls were free and open. Armenia is on the right democratic path,” said Vladimir Garkun, the Mission’s head. He stressed that the 170 observers of the mission toured in almost 200 polling stations and registered some inaccuracies, which though were of technical nature.

In the meantime it is left to the Armenian people, and particularly their politicians to make sense of it all. Many seem to agree that there was a shortfall between the provisions of the law and the way these provisions were implemented, with concerns particularly related to voter intimidation, vote-buying, and manipulation of the electoral process. The coincidence of problems with the voters list and the ineffectiveness of ink meant to ensure that a person only voted once,  as a minimum harmed the credibility of the process. It could even have distorted it.

A number of young Armenian activists who feel empowered for the first time thanks to the use of new media, and who preferred to campaign for a clean process rather than for a particular party, have been left with a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the whole election experience. They have gone some way in recording election shortcomings, and it is now for others to draw conclusions. In fact the biggest success of these elections was probably the fact that many of the practises that in the past were accepted as part of “the Armenian reality” are now being questioned. The genie is out of the bottle and nobody will be able to put it back.

The politicians however now need to take some immediate decisions. Some parties may be tempted to boycott parliament citing the shortcomings in the elections registered. They will be wrong to do so. With all its shortcomings the new Armenian parliament should be the arena where Armenia’s future political battles are fought. Regardless of partisan affiliation many of the people elected are better qualified to fulfill the role and may bring some cultural change to the work practises of what remains an institution embedded in the past. The president will have to decide if, regardless of his parliamentary majority, he wants a coalition government. Most probably he would, and we may even see some surprises.

The Armenian parliamentary elections were the beginning of a journey. “I cannot stress enough how important it is to see these elections and our preliminary findings in the broader context and as the beginning of the process, not the end” said Krzysztof Lisek, the Head of the European Parliament delegation monitoring the elections. He was referring mainly to next year’s presidential election in Armenia, but in fact these elections are the beginning of a three-year election cycle in the South Caucasus by the end of which we will know if the region is really part of the European political mainstream, or whether its leaders have decided to anchor it in more autocratic traditions. That leaves a big responsibility on the people of the region and all who engage with it to make a big effort to get this challenge right.

source: LINKS Analysis (c)

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