Over the next eighteen months the three countries of the South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, will conduct important elections that many consider will determine the future of the individual countries and of the region, and most certainly will decisively impact their relations with Europe.
The cycle kicked off on May 6th with Parliamentary Elections in Armenia. Parliamentary elections in Georgia are scheduled for October. Next year will see the three countries voting in Presidential elections.
The region has a history of troubled and contested elections, and whilst some polls have been better than others, many observers feel that there has not been a single election, since the three countries regained their independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, that fully met international standards. This situation continuously raises questions of legitimacy around the three governments, and has been a matter of concern to European Union and US officials, who are keen to increase relations with the region and see this situation as a major obstacle.
The Armenian elections a step in the right direction, but many concerns remain.
Armenia went to the polls on 6 May to elect a 131 member parliament. It was the first national election following the Presidential elections of 2008 which ended in the tragic death of numerous opposition protestors who contested the results of that poll. The Armenian government promised a free and transparent poll, and indeed some progress was registered in a number of areas.
There was around the elections a competitive environment, as nine parties and blocs put forward different perspectives mainly on economic and domestic issues. Once the election campaign started the media played an important role in giving a voice to the different groups and in this aspect at least one could observe a level playing field. The campaign was largely peacefully with only isolated incidents of attempts to interfere with campaigning.
The election process in the run up to Election Day was well organised. The first signs of problems emerged once the Central Elections Commission announced that the voters list which included 2,482,238 names (see page 3 for more details). The problem became more acute when on election day, the ink that was to be applied to the voters identification document, and which was supposed to last twelve hours, disappeared after a few minutes, thus taking away one of the safeguards that was to ensure that voters did not vote more than once. The Chairman of the Central Elections Commission described it as a technical problem, and by the afternoon a process of adding normal ink to the special ink was introduced in most polling stations, but by this time hundreds of thousands of people had already voted. A number of NGOs and media outlets monitoring the process recorded on camera numerous occasions of overcrowding at polling stations, the presence of unauthorized people around the ballot boxes and other irregularities.
International observers give cautious welcome
The overall assessment of the international observers who monitored the elections has been to cautiously welcome the positive aspects, and to push for progress on the shortcomings. EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said in a joint statement:
“We welcome the efforts by the Armenian authorities to hold these parliamentary elections in a way which represents progress towards more transparent and competitive elections. However, the elections also demonstrated the need to address a number of issues in order to fully meet internationally recognized democratic standards.”
A similar statement was issued by the US Government. However opposition parties and independent local monitors think that the process has been much worse than the international community thinks and cite examples of vote-buying and of blatant use of administrative resources.
But for the moment the Armenian government has bought time. It has also in the elections secured an overall majority in the new parliament, whilst on the other hand all the main political forces won enough votes to pass the threshold and be represented in the new parliament.
It has been a wobbly start for the elections cycle, one that does not leave either Armenia or the region in general, anywhere much different from where it was before.