The British Helsinki Human Rights Group election monitors in Armenia–issued a report on the second tround of presidential polls. The group found the March 30 vote to be free and fair. Below is the text of the reprot.
Armenia 1998: Presidential Elections
Report on the Second Round
Three observers came from Britain for the Second Round of the Armenian Presidential Elections. They discussed developmen’s with other international observers and local Armenian observers–as well as with representatives of the two candidates–Karen Demirchian and Robert Kocharian They also visited the Central Election Commission. They also met the General-Prosecutor of Armenia–Henrik Khatchaturian–to discuss the investigations arising out of allegations regarding events up to and including the First Round on 16th March.
The observers attended large rallies conducted by both candidates outside the Yerevan Opera House on Saturday–29th March. Both passed off without incident. Other rallies around Armenia also went off without violence or disruption. State television broadcast both allotted free time and paid commercials for both candidates.
There were no credible reports of illegal campaigning. Allegations of bribery were investigated but they were always at least second-hand.
(See below for a retracted allegation of bribery in a polling station Achapnyak 1/4.) The source of rumors is notoriously difficult to detect but it would be naive to adopt the "no smoke without fire" approach to them.
Interference with the Conduct of the Poll
Following up allegations about the conduct of voting in the First Round–the BHHRG observers visited polling stations in and around Yerevan where charges had been made of serious irregularity by supporters of Mr. Demirchian and Mr. Manoukian. (The OSCE/ODIHR’s report’s serious charges were not specific–so it was unclear how far they represented different allegations or repeated those of the losing candidates.)
In each polling station–the observers interviewed the proxies of the two candidates as well as election commission members and ordinary voters. As in the First Round–it was striking that Mr. Demirchian’s representatives in the polling stations were largely satisfied with the conduct of the poll both on 30th March and on 16th March.
Repeatedly–they said that whatever had happened elsewhere or may be happening in other places on 30th March–in their particular polling station everything was properly conducted.
Nor-Nork: 7. A little after 9 a.m. a representative of Mr. Demirchian’s local headquarters entered the polling station and complained that his candidate’s two observers were seated too far from the ballot boxes. The two Demirchian proxies protested that they were quite content where they were and had a clear view of proceedings from their seats alongside the Kocharian proxy. As the altercation between the Demirchian proxies and the HQ representative progressed–the chairman of the electoral commission summoned a policeman who spoke to the Demirchian representative who voted and then left. The Demirchian proxies again expressed their satisfaction with their position in the polling station.
This incident had an important feature: It was a Demirchian campaign representative’s arrival which sparked the disruption of proceedings though this incident lasted only a few minutes.
During a visit to the Demirchian campaign headquarters in Erebuni in the late morning–the observers were told that serious irregularities had taken place in polling station 5/15. It was claimed that unknown persons had thrust a package of ballots into the ballot box. It was also alleged that plainclothes policemen were in the polling station.
On arrival at Erebuni 5/15–the observers found a serious dispute between proxies and other representatives of Mr. Demirchian–including the chief of his local headquarters–and the Kocharian representative.
There were two main issues: had anyone stuffed the ballot and where should the proxies stand to watch the vote? On the first issue–the Kocharian representative insisted that a man had put a folded ballot paper through the narrow slit into the ballot box. Because of the way he had folded it several times it took him some time to push it in. The Demirchian representatives insisted that someone had entered the polling station and thrust hundreds of ballots into the box. One Demirchian representative insisted that the man in question had declared that he was casting votes for Robert Kocharian!
Inspecting the narrow slit it seemed unlikely that anyone could have put more than a few votes in at once. The excitable claims by the Demirchian representatives were confused by the fact that more of them testified to what had happened than could have been present at the time and their accounts became more inflamed as they recited them.
They wanted the international observers (who included the British Ambassador) to open the ballot box to check if a wad of votes had been stuffed in. This would have added irregularity to what was already claimed. (As it happens–at the count–Mr. Demirchian easily won in this polling station. Neither did BHHRG observers find a wad of votes when the ballot box was opened at the count.)
A BHHRG observer who returned to Erebuni 5/15 in the afternoon joined a Demirchian proxy to the local campaign HQ where a wad of 34 ballots was produced–all marked for Kocharian. Another Demirchian observer claimed he had prevented a Kocharian proxy from putting these ballots in the box–by throwing himself on it. Two young males were introduced to the BHHRG observer as voters who had witnessed the incident. Yet the proxy and the witnesses produced conflicting versions of the event. Moreover–when the BHHRG observer–on instigation of the Demirchian local HQ–went to Erebuni 5/18 to check on an alleged fraud–he found the same two young males present. This left the impression that these had not been ordinary voters–but "appointed witnesses" for the Demirchian campaign.
On the second issue–Mr. Demirchian’s representatives insisted on standing right next to the ballot box with clear oversight of how people separated the voter’s coupon from the ballot paper itself. The Kocharian representative objected that their presence so close to the box could influence voters.
In Erebuni 5/15–the unauthorized presence of numerous excited representatives of Mr. Demirchian’s local HQ along with his two observers seemed to cause much of the difficulty there. In fact–while they were making their protests voting continued remarkably normally as voters registered their addresses and took ballots. Local people did not seem aware of the serious charge made about ballot-stuffing in their polling station.
On 16th March–a serious incident took place in Apachnyak 1/5. According to Mr. Demirchian’s proxy–a mob of up to 35 men broke into the polling station and tried to stuff ballots into the box. Mr. Demirchian’s proxy threw herself across the box to prevent the stuffing. She was assaulted by the intruders. As a result she had become a heroine for the Demirchian camp and had addressed his Opera Square rally on 29th March. It was alleged that a wad of about 350 ballots for Robert Kocharian was found in the box at the count. The General-Prosecutor told the BHHRG observers that he was investigating the incident. One member of the election commission who was present at the incident on 16th March confirmed the details but expressed his opinion that it was a "provocation" to discredit the poll. Whatever had happened on 16th March–on 30th March in the mid-afternoon both candidates’ proxies expressed themselves satisfied with the conduct of the ballot so far.
The Hotel Sebastiani (Malatya: 1/6) had been criticized by the OSCE and Demirchian’s HQ for irregularities during the first round. Mr. Demirchian’s two proxies were different people from those in the first round. They explained the change on the grounds that their predecessors had other obligations on 30th March. They had not witnessed any irregularities by 5 p.m. in the afternoon. In general–they thought that the conduct of the election on both 30th and 16th March was much better than in 1996.
At Malatya 7/12–the observers spoke to two Demirchian supporters standing outside the polling station who said that they had come as volunteer witnesses to potential fraud. They were not authorized to enter the station but were waiting for any untoward event. It seems likely that other supporters of Mr. Demirchian who had been seen inside or around other polling stations were similarly on hand as potential witnesses. The problem with their presence was that since they were outside the polling station they could only be hearsay witnesses to what might go on inside it. Although these two supporters of Mr. Demirchian had no complaints to make about the conduct of the vote in 7/12 they reported rumors from other places. They said that at 7/12 they had not seen any Kocharian supporters performing the same vigil.
The most serious charges of bribery were made by a lady supporter of Mr. Demirchian outside Aparchnyak 1/4. She insisted to the observers that the Kocharian proxy had offered money to voters and indeed had run out of cash by the time the witness came to vote. However–she changed her story twice: first she changed her testimony to say that she had been told this was happening–and then when she came to vote at the station (something which she originally claimed she had already done) she denied making any charge against Kocharian’s proxy. The two Demirchian proxies in the station dismissed the allegations as did Kocharian’s _ both sides argued in a good natured way that the accuser had been a little odd since having an accident a few years before and she should not be held responsible for her allegations. Certainly Demirchian’s proxies thought the conduct so far (and on 16th March) was fair and much better than in 1996. This incident showed how the rumor mill could work on suggestive people: allegations of irregularity from the politicians and the media had been taken up and personalized by a confused elderly lady who had made them quite specifically about one Kocharian proxy in one place; yet on inspection the charges evaporated. If the victim had not been so good-natured an ugly incident could have arisen out of these false charges which in turn might have been reported as an irregularity!
Much of our observation of controversial polling stations was video-taped. Video-evidence is especially valuable in capturing the atmosphere inside polling stations. When the behavior of election officials–local observers–voters and others is in question capturing a visual impression of the conduct of the poll is an invaluable aid to observation. This is particularly true when it comes to disputes about what went on. It is–for instance–notoriously difficult to prove a negative. Video-evidence can assist in showing what happened in controversial situations–indeed in showing whether there should be controversy at all.
The BHHRG observers were concerned about the additional lists used in every polling station. On 16th March–their use had been noted. Such lists lay an election open to the charge of manipulation. The observers asked Demirchian proxies if they were satisfied with the checking of identities and addresses of additional voters. In the Writers’ Union polling station in central Yerevan–Mr. Demirchian’s proxy said he was unhappy in principle with the idea of an additional list but he had carried out spot checks on such voters and in every case (c.10% of the total)–he had found that their documen’s proved they were entitled to vote at that polling station. No-one produced evidence of voters without the appropriate "propiska" voting at a polling station–but additional lists are undesirable if only because their existence generates rumors of abuse in a polarized political climate.
The observers concluded that in their view the Second Round of the Armenian Presidential Elections was properly conducted on 30th March–1998.
The few incidents of controversy or confusion witnessed at polling stations seemed to be the product of rumors and the heightened emotions of election day without convincing evidence of fraud. As we have seen–some instances of deliberate false accusation must be acknowledged.
The observers felt that the election commissions were conducting their tasks in a conscientious manner. The great majority of proxies for both candidates also acted in an exemplary manner despite the temptations to politicize their work.
Given the unusual circumstances of the election and the political polarization engendered by the campaign with its allegations of electoral fraud–Armenian election commissions and candidates’ proxies as well as the voters are to be congratulated on the generally orderly and honest way in which they conducted themselves on 30th March.
(A full report on the Armenian Presidential Elections will be posted shortly.)
First published on April 2–1998