Election Monitors Can’t Agree on Election Fairness

YEREVAN (Reuters–Noyan Tapan)–International observers said Wednesday Armenia’s inconclusive presidential election was deeply flawed and a catalogue of problems would have to be overcome for the runoff to be fair.

This came after the US State Department commented on Armenia’s elections after a month-and-a-half of silence on the developmen’s in Armenia and gave the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe the task to scrutinize election violations.

Thus–even before the final unofficial result was announced–the OSCE made clear the first round had been unsatisfactory.

State Department spokesman James Rubin said Tuesday that the US embassy in Yerevan and the OSCE were looking into the allegations.

"We are also urging the Armenian government to investigate these allegations immediately and thoroughly and take appropriate action," Rubin told a news briefing.

He declined further comment–pending a report by international monitors.

If Kocharian becomes president–it could mark a setback for US hopes of achieving a settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh–an Armenian-populated enclave in neighboring Azerbaijan which has been a scene of conflict for the past decade.

At press time–with 92 percent of the votes counted–Armenia’s Acting President and Prime Minister Robert Kocharian had a 10 percent lead over Armenia’s Soviet-era Communist leader Karen Demirchian. Kocharian received 39.14 percent of the votes while Demirchian clung on to his 31.16 percent votes.

Discussions between several presidential candidates and the two remaining camps has already begun–with Constitutional Rights Union chairman and presidential candidate Hrant Khatchatrian already urging his supporters to vote for Kocharian in the March 30 run-off elections.

"We regret that this first round of the elections fell short of the standards to which Armenia has committed itself in OSCE documen’s," an OSCE observers’ statement said–echoing concerns already voiced by half the candidates in a joint complaint.

Sam Brown–the chief OSCE observer–emphasized that the irregularities were not serious enough to have changed the general outcome of the first round and that Kocharian and Demirchian would have been the top vote-getters despite them.

"Although this election was deeply flawed–we don’t believe the outcome would have been in any way altered by the violations we observed," Brown said. But he said in the second round–expected to be closer–the flaws would have to be corrected.

"Based on its monitoring the CIS Interparliamentary Assembly delegation stated that the election took place within the framework of the Armenian Constitution and Armenia’s law on presidential election–based on democratic norms–in an active and organized manner providing the voters with the opportunity to express their free will regarding their choice for the presidency of the Republic of Armenia. The CIS Interparliamentary Assembly delegation did not encounter any legal violations. Technical irregularities were observed only at 2/1 voting station where a crowd had developed at the ballot distribution booth," reported the CIS Interparliamentary Assembly election montitoring delegation.

"The CIS Interparliamentary Assembly delegation stated that special elections in the Republic of Armenia took place in accordance with the laws of the republic and were–in general–based on international legal norms," the CIS team concluded.

A representative of the Interparliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Lord Russel Johnson said that "the election was run on an acceptable level" and noted considerable improvement of the voting process compared to the 1996 presidential election.

Expert from the Council of Europe Bernard Owen told journalists that it was not right to apply to Armenia OSCE norms envisaged for countries with developed democracies. According to standards of the newly independent states "the elections were run well," Owen said.

OSCE observers visited more than 800 polling stations on election day–which is more than half of the total number of polling stations in Armenia.

Earlier this month–at the 157th plenary meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had addressed the course of preparations for the March 16 presidential election.

In addressing the meeting–a permanent US representative to the OSCE–David Johnson–voiced satisfaction over the open and transparent nature of preparations for the presidential election in Armenia–which may–according to him–become an example for other OSCE-member states to follow–the Armenian Foreign Ministry’s public relations department reported. Johnson reportedly underlined that the United States hail the attitude of the Armenian authorities.

"This time there was a little wiggle room because there was no question the two would still be in the race. It (the second round) has to be a lot better or it will not get a clean bill of health," said Brown.

The OSCE deployed 200 observers to cover more than 800 polling stations–about half the total in Armenia–which is under scrutiny because it lies close to the oil-rich Caspian Sea basin as well as for concerns for democracy.

The statement said significant violations were observed at 15 percent of the polling stations visited.

"Key areas of concern which require correction" for the runoff included voting in the military–the use of state resources–the presence of police and unauthorized personnel in polling stations and media bias–the statement said.

Brown said he welcomed a Kocharian statement issued on Tuesday pledging to ensure a fair second round and vowing to punish those responsible for abuses.

Individual observers reported incidences of voter intimidation and ballot box stuffing and said that in some cases voters were coached to fill out ballots.

International observers accused Armenia of election fraud in 1995 and most recently during the last presidential poll in 1996 which re-elected Levon Ter-Petrosyan. He later used tanks and troops to quell street protests against the outcome.

The Council of Europe–which sent nine observers–reported violations similar to those seen by OSCE observers. It also said the election outcome would not have been affected by them and that in general–it was an improvement on the 1996 poll.

The March 30 runoff pits Demirchian–who surged back from a decade of obscurity on a wave of nostalgia among Armenia’s weary of economic hardship–against Kocharian–who has been acting head of state since Ter-Petrosyan quit last month.

Ter-Petrosyan was forced out by opponents–led by Kocharian–furious over his proposed concessions to Azerbaijan aimed at ending 10 years of conflict between the two neighbors over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

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