Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Armenia: Measures to Promote Free-and-Fair Presidential Vote Face Scrutiny
Gayane Abrahamyan: 01/29/08

With Armenia’s presidential election less than a month away, attention is focusing on measures taken by the government to promote a free-and-fair vote. Critics are quick to cite shortcomings in official anti-fraud efforts, and some go so far as to accuse the government of plotting to stuff ballot boxes. Officials are downplaying the opposition criticism and accusations, with one calling them the byproduct of an "ardent imagination."

International observers qualified Armenia’s May 2007 parliamentary election as largely in keeping with international democratic norms, though they stressed that many core problems existed. [For background see the Armenia Vote: 2007 special feature]. Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian is widely considered the leading candidate to win the February 19 election and succeed President Robert Kocharian, who is constitutionally barred from seeking another term. Sarkisian’s primary challenger is generally considered to be former president, Levon Ter-Petrosian. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Beginning last October, parliament began working out a new election code, but many of the recommendations by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights observation mission were not incorporated into the reform blueprint.

Of the changes made, some political activists cite the requirement to seal voters’ passports to prevent multiple voting as the most important new anti-fraud feature; repeat voting was a problem mentioned by the OSCE observers in their final report on the May 2007 election. "This is the only amendment to help fight against violations such as repeat voting," commented opposition Heritage Party secretary Stepan Safarian.

An additional amendment allows voters to vote outside of the constituency in which they were originally registered -- if they re-register seven days before the election. While some local observers see this as a progressive idea that follows international standards, they also worry that it will pave the way for abuse of administrative resources.

"I am confident the people will register in a number of lists and will vote several times," commented Varuzhan Hoktanian, deputy chairperson of Transparency International Armenia. "Of course, sealing passports will somehow divert the threat, but there will certainly be countermeasures to neutralize those seals." In the past, Hoktanian alleged, commission members – acting on prior agreements -- did not always check passports.

The Central Election Commission dismisses such allegations of laxity. "We are led by the electoral code and it provides all the possibilities to hold democratic elections. We can’t predict and prevent the way people can falsify them. There should be a complaint with supporting evidence filed to consider," CEC Secretary Abraham Bakhchagulyan told EurasiaNet.

OSCE recommendations to review campaigning and campaign financing regulations -- and how they would apply to activities both before and after the official campaign period -- were not included in the new law. Opposition candidate Artur Baghdasarian contends that such changes were not discussed because they would not work to the government’s advantage; ruling Republican Party parliamentarian Samvel Nikoyan, meanwhile, said that it was necessary to first define the term of the pre-campaign period before spending practices and other activities could be regulated.

In addition, the OSCE suggested that parliament "urgently review" the make-up of election commissions. In its final September 2007 report, the OSCE noted that "persons appointed by the ruling parties and the president have a priority right in being appointed to the top three positions of the chairman, deputy chairman and the secretary."

Despite the OSCE’s recommendation, this provision in the electoral code remained unchanged; election commission seats are largely based on representation in parliament, meaning only two opposition parties – the Heritage and Orinats Yerkir parties – are represented on commissions. Citing aides to party leader Raffi Hovannisian, ArmeniaLiberty on January 25 reported that the Heritage Party plans to grant its seats in "hundreds of election commissions" to supporters of Ter-Petrosian and Vazgen Manukian. Nonetheless, the large majority of commission seats will remain in administration-friendly hands.

To prepare commission members for the election, the CEC has organized three training seminars with support from IFES and the OSCE. Training will begin on January 28 for some 15,000 precinct election commission members.

Opposition members, contend that training for commission members is less pressing than other needs. Some prefer to call attention to allegations of administration initiatives to rig the vote. For example, Baghdasarian’s campaign manager alleges that within the past few weeks state funds have been allotted for the printing of some 500,000 new passports for Armenians who no longer reside in the country. "They have already listed the persons who are absent from Armenia – about 500,000 – to print new passports in their names to have someone else go and vote with those passports," said Heghine Bisharian, who cited sources within the police passport department as the basis for her claim.

Col. Alvina Zakarian, head of the police department in charge of voter lists, rejected Bisharian’s accusation. The newly issued passports are legitimate, she asserted, and are intended to accommodate new voters. Some 4,000 Armenians reached voting age between January 10 and January 14, she said, and "many" others returned to Armenia after last year’s elections and re-registered to vote, he said.

"I am ready to take the responsibility, if you show me just one false passport," Zakarian said.

In response to this allegation, President Kocharian has stated that the funds are intended for a new passport system that would include biometric data in Armenian passports.

Meanwhile, voter rights group Election 2008 Legal Initiative, a collective of some 50 Armenian NGOs funded by the international development organization Counterpart International, reports that employees at schools and state-funded institutions have called the group’s hotline to report that their employers are pressuring them to hand over their passports. Some were allegedly told that the passports were needed to check data; others were refused an explanation.

People’s Party of Armenia Deputy Chairman Grigor Harutyunian, who backs Ter-Petrosian’s candidacy, terms the alleged practice an abuse of administrative resources. "The heads of state institutions and schools are mostly Republican [Party of Armenia] or Prosperous Armenia [Party] members. They demand the passports as employers and threaten to fire people if they refuse to bring them in," Harutyunian alleged.

Republican Party of Armenian spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov strongly denied the allegations, referring to the reports of passport collection as "the results of the opposition’s ardent imagination."

"Why don’t they sue them?" Sharmazanov said, referring to employees allegedly targeted by the requests. "No one has the right to take anyone’s passport."

Lawyer Khachatur Ohanian, a member of the Election 2008 Legal Initiative group, says that fear of reprisals often deters voters from pursuing complaints. "[I]n many cases, we have registered voters and have told them we are ready to defend them free of charge, but they are afraid and don’t believe us."

CEC Secretary Bakhchagulian counters that such allegations merely cater to the opposition’s interests. In the end, he says, election observers will act as the final arbiters of these disputes. "We are doing everything to have high-quality elections," he said. "The observers will judge how well we have succeeded."

Editorís Note: Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan.