British Helsinki Human Rights Group Calls First Round Free Fair

YEREVAN(Armenpress)–The British Helsinki Human Rights Group issued a report on the first round of early presidential election in Armenia–on March 23. The report follows:

The resignation of President Levon Ter-Petrosyan on February 3–1998–came as a surprise to the international community. The second presidential election to be held within two years had to be called within 40 days. This challenge came as hopes were growing that the OSCE-sponsored Minsk peace process might–at last–be close to resolving the status of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in neighboring Azerbaijan. Ter-Petrosyan seemed ready to compromise over the region’s status and this–many believe–led to his downfall.

Renewed unrest in Georgia and continuing speculation over the construction and development of pipelines transporting oil from the Caspian Sea added to international concern over Armenia’s political development.

However–many analysts also believed that Armenia had suffered a fundamental crisis in political legitimacy as the legacy of a parliamentary election and constitutional referendum in July 1995 and a presidential election in September 1996 that both domestic politicians and international organizations now concede were deeply flawed. BHHRG monitors were in Armenia for both elections–the Group has also reported on the state of human rights in the country.

The BHHRG sent four observer to monitor the March poll. They held meetings with election officials and with a range of parties and other organizations supporting the 12 candidates standing for the presidency.

On election day itself (March 16) two observers traveled south to Ararat and the surrounding region while the other two traveled north to Gyumri and Ashtarak visiting polling stations en route.

There were 12 candidates. The two leading contenders were the prime minister of Armenia (and former president of Karabakh) Robert Kocharian and Karen Demirchian who was First Secretary of the Armenian Communist Party until 1988. Since then Demirchian had become a businessman running the Armelektromash factory in Yerevan. His candidacy came as something of a surprise to many people but he was soon regarded as the main challenger to Kocharian overtaking Vazgen Manoukian who might–understandably–have thought he was unfairly denied victory in 1996.

In the end no candidate received the necessary 50 percent plus 1 share of the vote and a second round of voting will take place on March 30. The BHHRG reached the following conclusions after the first round:

The Campaign

Compared with the events that preceded the 1995 election in particular–this campaign was notable for the absence of intimidation (reported or real)–not to mention unexplained shootings and explosions. The only really notable violent incident occurred in the southern town of Ararat where a rally addressed by the right-hand man of presidential candidate Vazgen Manoukian (Ter-Petrosyan’s chief opponent in 1996 and the almost certain victor of that contest) descended into a brawl. Filaret Berikian–a representative of Manoukian’s party on the Central Electoral Commission had his arm broken during the incident.

However–four suspects were quickly arrested and charged and the town’s chief of police has been fired.

There were many fewer posters for the candidates than in previous elections. The large–glossy portraits of Ter-Petrosyan which were displayed everywhere in 1996 (often behind glass) created a strong reaction to ostentatious displays. Despite his lead in the opinion polls there were hardly any posters in central Yerevan for Robert Kocharian; the greatest number of such posters were for the ‘surprise’ candidate–Karen Demirchian. It was–therefore rather bizarre to find leaflets for Kocharian being distributed among passengers on the Armenian Airlines flight that brought many observers to Yerevan.

Members of the Citizens’ Initiative–the organization nominating former Communist First Party Secretary–Karen Demirchian–complained about the largely negative coverage of their candidate in the state-owned sections of the print and broadcast media. While these allegations have to some extent been endorsed by the European Institute for the Media this organization concluded that election broadcasting generally was fairer than it had been in the two previous elections.

Demirchian’s campaign team also made allegations about irregularities on the voter registers (the inclusion of dead people in the lists) and the likelihood that refugees would vote even though they were legally proscribed from doing so. In fact–the Central Electoral Commission contradicted this saying that if refugees were registered as citizens of Armenia they could take part in the election. These allegations were repeated at Manoukian’s campaign headquarters on the day following the election. (Most refugees came from Azerbaijan before 1991 and therefore were legally entitles to vote in Armenia).

The Conduct of Voting

The overall impression on voting day itself–based on visits to some 26 polling stations in Yerevan–towns and rural areas was one of impartial and efficient election administration–In particular BHHRG observers notices:

a. An absence of armed police or plain-clothes officers–both of which were very much in evidence in 1995 and 1996 and the source of many complaints by voters and electoral commission members who felt able to communicate their disquiet to observers.

b. The decision not to permit any balloting away from the polling-station itself (which also meant that there could be no mobile ballot box)–required soldiers to vote alongside ordinary members of the public. In places like Ararat–where there are large Armenian (and Russian) military installations nearby–this led to upwards of 300 soldiers being registered at a single polling station–However–in all the cases we witnessed–voting was orderly and gave no rise to complaints from other voters or members of electoral commissions.

c. Privacy for voters was much improved by the provision of generous-sized voting-booths (or even entire rooms)–as well as by a more straightforward process of registration. Although the final turn-out proved quite high–overcoming in polling stations was simply not a problem.

d. We witnessed no instances of people with several passports trying to vote on behalf of others. Commission members were firm in their resolve to not permit this behavior. Nor did we witness instances of family voting; both practices were widespread in 1995 and 1996.

e. Electoral commissions consisted of up to 20 members embracing all the parties represented in the election. Chairman came from a range of different parties. However–as Demirchian’s candidacy had not been proposed by any party this meant that–uniquely–he was only entitled to be represented by chosen proxies and/or observers. For this reason we made a point of talking to these where we could find them–which was at least four-fifths of the places visited. None of them had any complaint to make–though we were surprised by their tendency to be absent from proceedings after 6 p.m.–something that somewhat undermines subsequent allegations of mass fraud and even violence. No other observers made complaints–apart from a lady from Manoukian’s party who again raised the issue of refugee voting.

f. Copies of the election law in Armenian were widely and freely available. By contrast there were no campaign posters visible inside polling stations as there had been in both 1995 and 1996. In addition–we also observed a count in a polling-station in central Yerevan. The entire process took more than 4 hours–but–again–compared with the counts in 1995 which we had watched well into the night–work was completed efficiently and with good humor. (Victory in this particular precinct in a relatively "well-heeled" part of Yerevan went to Demirchian–who took 582 votes against 443 for Kocharian and 125 for Manoukian.)

The Aftermath

As it became clear in September 1996 that Manoukian would not accept the verdict of the electorate–crowds gathered outside the headquarters of the Central Electoral Commission–leading to violent clashes in which dozens of Armenia’s were injured. Notwithstanding–and despite a change of premises–the CEC took no evident precautions on this occasion against popular protest (as they might had serious fraud been intended)–and the day after voting observers and journalists had no difficulty in walking round their office asking questions.

True–results were slow to come in. But this was mainly because of the separate procedure of counting coupons (detached from the ballot-paper proper; a "control" mechanism built into the electoral system at the instigation of Western experts) being conducted at the district level. This in some ways sensible safeguard significantly delayed the release of results for large population centers like Yerevan.

Frustrated by this delay–Demirchian chose to "cry foul." In fact–the declaration he issued along with four other candidates (Baruyr Hairikian–an imprisoned dissident during Demirchian’s rule of Armenia–later retracted his support claiming that Demirchian had refused to support an investigation of election abuses by supporters of any candidate) was released an hour before polls closed on Monday. Picked up and circulated by several news organizations–an impression was given that the electorate had again been cheated and that Armenia might be about to re-experience the violent events of 1996.

Despite their indignant impatience at the slowness of the CEC–so far Demirchian’s office has been unable to provide evidence (or even details of time and place) to substantiate their plentiful and colorful accusations of ballot-stuffing and count-rigging.

Should such evidence be forthcoming–it should indeed be treated seriously by international bodes such as the OSCE and Council of Europe monitoring these elections. (Like Georgia and Azerbaijan–Armenia is currently trying to shake off its poor human rights record and join the Council of Europe).

However–it would be unfortunate if the OSCE over-compensated for its past indulgence to electoral fraud in Armenia by being hyper-critical now as the major powers are preoccupied with their oil-interests in Azerbaijan.

If no compelling evidence of electoral malpractice can be produced–then it would be highly destabilizing either for international monitors to echo politicized charges or for the second-placed candidate to refuse to enter a run-off against Kocharian on 30 March. And fate all its problems of recent years–further destabilization is probably the last thing Armenia needs.

Using local polling data this Group will pay particular attention in the second round to districts and polling stations with anomalous results.

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