BY SARA ANJARGOLIAN AND URSULA KAZARIAN
Photos by Eric Grigorian
As reports of irregularities during the Yerevan municipal election continue to make headlines in the media, members of a joint local-Diaspora monitoring team, which exceeded 100 people, are nevertheless optimistic about the level of engagement and partnership between local organizations and Diaspora resources.
The effort, which was the first of its kind, encouraged local monitors and provided a unique avenue of engagement for Diasporans. From the opening of the polls at 8 a.m. to the end of the vote count, which stretched well past midnight at many precincts, Diasporans stood alongside local monitors to deter fraud and to record any irregularities.
Each two-member team was equipped with video cameras and trained in their legal right under the Armenian Electoral Code to photograph and make video recordings. Specifically, the Diaspora team chose to deploy its monitors to what have become recognized as Yerevan’s “hot spots,” in District 7 (Sebastia-Malatia) and District 13 (Nubarashen), both of which are known to be heavily influenced and controlled by local oligarchs.
Violations reported across precincts
Observed violations included threats of physical harm and damage to property; routine dismissal by election commission members of violations observed and reported by monitors; what appeared to be premeditated and organized chaos, aided by commission members, with the apparent intent to distract observers and/or to infringe on their right to film and photograph the proceedings; and an overwhelming number of “helpers,” or people designated to assist those who may be physically unable to vote alone.
“Helpers” are allowed under the Armenian Electoral Code; however, according to many local and Diasporan monitors, most of these “helpers” were not occasional individuals helping family members or friends, but instead arrived in parallel with busloads of mostly elderly voters as part of what appeared to be an orchestrated strategy.
Diasporan repatriate Babken Der Grigorian, who was monitoring polling station 7/15 with his partner Paola Guevara, reported that more than 70 “helpers” were registered to escort blind, disabled, or otherwise infirm voters at his polling place.
At Precinct 7/28, where Diasporan repatriates Pedro Zarokian and Armen Kupelian were stationed, individuals registered as “observers” under shell NGOs caused ongoing commotion and often obstructed the legitimate monitors’ ability to record violations, some of which were committed by the precinct’s electoral commission chair. Zarokian also reported voter intimidation, which included roving gangs of men who congregated in front of the polling station and seemed to be responsible for “delivering” votes.
New form of Diasporan involvement?
Despite a long day full of these challenges, most Diasporans involved in the monitoring mission felt inspired and energized by the experience. Such was the case for repatriates Nairi Hakhverdi and Paula Der Matoian, who were stationed together at Precinct 7/14 and managed to capture some of the chaos that took place inside the precinct on video. After the polls closed, Hakhverdi remarked, “I can honestly say that we made a difference at our polling station. Simply getting the chairman to comply with the electoral code was enough to keep fraudsters on their toes. We couldn’t prevent suspicious voting completely, but we certainly got proxies and commission members sweating!”
Diasporan Rouben Galichian, who was deployed to Precinct 7/18, shared a similar sentiment: “I enjoyed it and think that our presence, badges, and the cameras did affect the voters’ and the committee members’ attitude and behavior. They all seemed to be more careful and on their toes. I will happily do it again.”