President of the European Council in high profile visit to the South Caucasus. Elections feature prominently in the discussions.

Herman Van Rumpoy

Elections featured prominently in the discussions held by the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, in the course of his high profile visit to the region during which he met the President of the three South Caucasus countries, as well as civil society and political party representatives. Recognising the progress made by Armenia in the conduct of its recent Parliamentary elections, van Rompuy addressed a special session of the Armenian Parliament.

CEW Victoria Arnold sums up the visit of the President of the European Council to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Although he had met political leaders from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan at various talks and summits in Brussels and Warsaw, including the heads of state, this was the first time Herman van Rompuy was seeing them on their home ground, an indication perhaps of the European Union’s growing engagement with the region’s affairs. Over the period of two days, Mr Van Rompuy travelled to all three capital cities, held talks with ministers and civil society groups, and made two major speeches in which he outlined the EU’s relationship with the three countries.

Statements made by Van Rompuy and his hosts covered a wide range of topics, but certain themes were discernible, including the mutual benefit of closer relations with the EU, the potential for EU assistance in conflict resolution (namely in Nagorno-Karabakh), and the promotion of EU norms and values, particularly with regard to electoral reform and political accountability. Armenia has just held elections to its National Assembly, and will have a presidential vote next February. Both Azerbaijan and Georgia will also be going to the polls in major political contests in the next eighteen months. As EU diplomats work on the negotiations of Association Agreements with all three South Caucasian states, the conduct of these elections and the long-term fostering of a transparent and pluralist political culture are of considerable importance, and will be the focus of much attention.

In Armenia

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) reported that Armenia’s parliamentary elections of the 6th of May “were characterized by a competitive, vibrant and largely peaceful campaign, which was, however, marked by a low level of confidence in the integrity of the process”. A number of violations of campaign provisions (for example, in the deployment of administrative resources) were recorded, as were instances of undue interference in the voting process by representatives of political parties, and shortcomings in the complaints and appeals system. Mr Van Rompuy repeatedly alluded to these findings and their implications for the Armenian electoral system in his public comments in Yerevan, praising the generally free and fair nature of the elections, but emphasising that further work is needed.

Perhaps in recognition of the new situation in the Armenian Parliament, where deputies representing all major political forces in the country are now represented Herman Van Rompuy addressed a special session of the National Assembly during his trip to Yerevan.

He stated.

“I am glad that the elections on 6 May demonstrated progress towards a more transparent and competitive electoral system. This was an important step forward, and I encourage Armenia to continue on this path, by strengthening democratic institutions, promoting transparency, human rights and the rule of law. At the same time, it is clear that a number of issues still need to be addressed to further improve the electoral system. Valuable work has been done by the observers of the OSCE/ODIHR as identified in their Final Report. I trust these issues could be addressed in good time for the presidential elections next year.”

In Georgia

In Georgia, Mr Van Rompuy’s next destination, his observations were less positive and more pointed:

“The parliamentary election in October and presidential elections in 2013 will be crucial indicators of the progress Georgia has made on its path to reform. I encourage all political actors in Georgia to support a tolerant political culture and issues-based debate. Fair competition and genuine participation in the elections will be fundamental”.

The OSCE/ODIHR team monitoring Georgia’s 2008 presidential election, while acknowledging that it was a genuinely competitive contest, nevertheless found some serious problems, including verifiable instances of intimidation of some voters and of opposition activists. They also noted that “distinction between State activities and the campaign of the ruling United National Movement (UNM) party candidate, Mr. Mikheil Saakashvili, was blurred”.

Similar observations of a hazy distinction between state and ruling party were made about the Georgian parliamentary elections in the same year. Perhaps with this in mind, Mr Van Rompuy, at the press conference following his meeting with President Saakashvili, remarked:

“I have pointed to the responsibility that lies with the President and his Government to ensure legitimacy of the elections. In this regard, I welcome President Sakaashvili´s aim to keep the electoral process open to election observers. I made the same point to the opposition when I met them earlier today. Building democracy needs responsible actors across the political divide”.

In Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s last parliamentary election, in 2010, was marked by inequality and bias in a number of crucial spheres, from media coverage to access to administrative resources, and the “fundamental freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression were limited”.

One of the consequences is that many Azerbaijani opposition partiesd are currently not represented in Parliament and see street protests as their only means of voicing their views. Unauthorised demonstrations were held throughout 2011, largely led by the main opposition parties Musavat and the Popular Front Party. At several of these, participants were arrested. Mr Van Rompuy made a point of welcoming the release of nine of those imprisoned last year, calling it “a positive step taken by Azerbaijan in its efforts to improve civil and political rights”, and encouraged the Azerbaijani authorities “ to continue and to deepen the reform process, including creating the necessary conditions for fair and transparent elections in 2013”.

In general, Mr Van Rompuy’s comments on elections in the South Caucasus were characterised by three things.

Firstly, both the electoral system and the political culture in which elections are held must be pluralist and transparent if free and fair votes are to take place.

Secondly, improvements should come both from above and from below – while governments should, for example, improve their electoral codes and establish robust and open procedures for complaints and appeals, steps should also be taken to foster an involved and healthy civil society. “The role of civil society is paramount in any country’s modernisation,” Mr Van Rompuy remarked in Baku. “The greater the engagement of civil society, the deeper the democracy with political pluralism and a system of checks and balances”.

Finally, greater proven electoral transparency and fairness are a vital part of the reform process required of the South Caucasus states by the EU, without which the Association Agreements for closer ties cannot proceed.

Source: CEW