Elections in Armenia on May 6 should not significantly alter the current balance of power in parliament, according to preliminary results. The most significant, unanswered question is whether incumbent authorities conducted a clean enough vote to satisfy the European Union.
EU officials had said prior to Election Day that the conduct of vote would play a major role in defining diplomatic relations between Brussels and Yerevan.
After the polls closed on May 6, leading representatives of the Republican Party of Armenia, the leader of the three-party governing coalition, were quick to tout the vote as free-and-fair. Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian, for example, called the poll “the most transparent” in the 20-year “history of our newly independent state.” Republican Party spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov also pronounced the voting to be largely irregularity-free.
“If someone thinks differently, I would ask for facts; not rhetoric and speeches, but specific facts,” lectured Sharmazanov. “There have been no facts.”
But international observers managed to come up with a few. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights OSCE/ODIHR), the Council of Europe, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and European Parliament assessed the vote count negatively in roughly 20 percent of the polling stations observed.
Speaking at a May 7 press conference in Yerevan, François-Xavier de Donnea, the special coordinator for the OSCE’s 250-member short-term observer team, praised Armenia “for its electoral reforms and its open and peaceful campaign environment,” yet noted that the election law was not always enforced by election commissions, or observed by “stakeholders.”
“The international commitments to which Armenia has freely subscribed were not always respected,” de Donnea said.
Inaccurate voter lists, handouts (money, cell phones, and even basturma, an Armenian dried meat, according to some reports), intimidation tactics, voter bussing and carousel voting were among the familiar repertoire of election-day irregularities alleged by opposition monitors and local election observers. Local observers planned to hold a news conference on May 8.
The 170-member Commonwealth of Independent States observation mission offered a rosier picture of the voting. CIS mission head Vladimir Garkun, a veteran Belarusian diplomat, declared irregularities to be mostly “technical,” adding that “Armenia is on the right path to democracy.”
The 62.6-percent official voter turnout on May 6 was the largest since Armenia’s 2003 parliamentary election.
According to the preliminary results, the Republican Party gained just over 44 percent of the vote, far outpacing its nearest competitor, multimillionaire businessman Gagik Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party, which is also part of the current governing coalition. Prosperous Armenia gained 30.2 percent of the votes, according to the preliminary results. The third coalition member, the scandal-hit Orinats Yerkir (Rule of Law) Party, barely cleared the 5-percent threshold.
The Armenian National Congress, headed by former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, led opposition parties with 7.1 percent of the vote. The Heritage Party, the outgoing parliament’s lone opposition group, and the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun barely qualified for representation, attracting 5.79 percent and 5.73 percent of the vote respectively.
In all, 90 of the 131 seats in parliament will be allotted according to the percentage of the vote given to a political party. The remaining 41 seats were determined in first-past-the-post votes among individual candidates. It would appear that candidates aligned with the Republican Party won most of the individual-constituency seats up for grabs.
How authorities follow through on investigating election-related complaints could become an issue. Most of the 494 complaints – all but 33 filed by a single person – submitted to Armenia’s Central Election Committee before election day were not investigated, recounted a post-election report issued by the OSCE/ODIHR, Council of Europe, European Parliament and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
“Almost all other complaints filed to the CEC were denied consideration on various technical grounds, or rejected, often without due consideration of the claim’s substance or evidence,” the report found. “Some decisions lacked sound legal basis.”
Widespread media reports about the disappearance of stamps placed by election officials in passports to prevent repeat voting kicked off Election Day. CEC Chairperson Tigran Mukuchian earlier had asserted that the stamps would last for 12 hours; he attributed the stamps’ disappearing act to failure to stir the stamp ink before use, but a test later run at the CEC showed that stirring made no difference, Panorama.am reported.
Members of the opposition and some local election observers believe the vanishing stamps facilitated carousel voting, a longtime feature of Armenian elections. The Armenian National Congress has filed a complaint with the CEC about the stamps, media reported.
Even if the elections were the fairest conducted in recent memory, the results still left some voters feeling embittered. “I myself witnessed how people are transported to the elections. And when you look at the results, and the discredited Orinats Yerkir Party gets as many votes as the opposition, I just want to leave this country,” grumbled 32-year-old designer Edgar Matevosian.
Twenty-six-year-old philologist Armine Hayrapetian expressed relief that, unlike the 2008 presidential vote, which led to deadly rioting; “[e]verything went normally and everything was calm.”
A fireball from exploding gas balloons at a May 4 Republican Party campaign rally that left at least 154 people hospitalized was the lone major incident that marred that peaceful assessment.
“[T]his time, it was significantly easier, and if some complain about voter bribes, let them just not take the bribes,” Hayrapetian said. “People decide themselves what to do and what not to do.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter in Yerevan and the editor of MediaLab.am.