Yerevan Election Condemned as Amoral and Cynical

International watchdog monitoring poll said it “witnessed the collapse of the Armenian electoral system as an institution”.

Yerevan Election Condemned as Amoral and Cynical

International watchdog monitoring poll said it “witnessed the collapse of the Armenian electoral system as an institution”.

Friday, 12 June, 2009

The Yerevan city elections were hailed as a chance to spread power beyond the hands of just the governing party, but ended up condemned as the “most illegal, amoral and cynical elections in all the history of Armenia”.



That was the damning assessment of the watchdog Transparency International, as the opposition’s hopes to win power in the Armenian capital collapsed amid claims of intimidation, ballot stuffing, multiple voting, and more.



The May 31 polls came just over a year after the government declared a state of emergency to stop angry Armenians from protesting the results of a presidential election, held last February, which resulted in ten deaths and hundreds of arrests. Critics of the authorities say the Yerevan ballot shows little has changed in the months since, despite government promises to take action.



The mayor of Yerevan, which dominates the country’s economy, has been an appointed position since 1992. Under a new system, city residents elected a Council of Elders, which in turn named presidential ally Gagik Beglarian as mayor.



The Armenian National Congress, HAK, the only opposition grouping to win seats in the Council of Elders, announced on June 1 it would not be taking up its posts. HAK Leader Levon Ter-Petrosian accused the authorities of organising “the ugliest election in Armenia’s history”.



Journalists at polling stations claimed they witnessed multiple violations of the electoral law, and IWPR reporter Anahit Danielian said she was even threatened by a candidate from the Prosperous Armenia party. Prosperous Armenia is a member of the ruling coalition with President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia, HHK. The alliance won with 47.39 per cent of the vote.



Danielian took photographs of Artak Avetisian, a candidate from the Prosperous Armenia party, chatting to voters inside the grounds of polling station 2/4 in the Nor Norq suburb, which is technically illegal under Armenian law. She said he challenged her, and demanded to know if she was following him. “I’ll take you to court, I’ll have you sacked,” he shouted, recounted the journalist.



When asked about Avetisian’s alleged actions, a spokesman for Prosperous Armenia dismissed Danielian’s account as a fabrication, although the photographs clearly show both Avetisian and a poster advertising his candidacy inside the polling station, which is also against electoral law.



“If this reporter saw this, why did she not immediately report it to the police,” asked party spokesman Baghdasar Mherian.



“Now I have the full right not to believe this reporter, because there is not proof of it. Could they not work out to the centimetre how close the candidate was to the polling station, for example 479 metres, 60 centimetres?”



“As for the posters, then I have never heard such an extreme lie, because Prosperous Armenia did not print individual posters with the image of its candidates,” he added. IWPR sent him the photo of the poster, but he did not respond.



Danielian said she also saw a senior official in the commission monitoring the count at polling station 8/17 add spoiled ballots to the pile for the HHK party, and was told to certify that the commission as a whole had decided this.



Several other journalists told IWPR they had been insulted and beaten by guards for candidates, when they asked them why they were inside a polling station. Nelly Gregorian, a reporter from the Aravot daily, said she saw a young man threatening the opposition observer.



“When I entered the polling station, I had a camera in my hand. I tried to take shots, but that boy saw me, left the observer, grabbed me by the shoulders and started pushing me around. All the while he was screaming ‘who are you and who let you photograph this’,” Gregorian told IWPR.



According to the journalist, nobody from the polling station interfered. The young man and two others then left the polling station, taking her camera with them, she said.



"They returned the camera, but the memory chip was gone," she said.



Gregorian told IWPR that an electoral commission official refused to accept the report she submitted on the incident, saying that he did not personally witness it. Transparency International said such events were frequent.



"We have witnessed the collapse of the Armenian electoral system as an institution. Instead, another institution proved to be strong and ‘functional’ - clans and neighbourhood criminals,” said Amalia Kostanian, chair of Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Centre.



“The elections for the Council of Elders of Yerevan were the most illegal, most amoral and cynical elections in all the history of Yerevan… If in the country the elections are held as they were in the 8th electoral district [of the capital], then soon the government must announce that the electoral system as an institution was just destroyed in Armenia.”



Opposition parties sent long lists of alleged violations to the general prosecutor’s office, including accounts of state buses with police escorts bringing voters from outside Yerevan to cast their votes in the city’s election.



Such allegations were strongly denied by the ruling parties which will take up the seats they won in the election.



“The president has stressed that the elections were free and fair, and that, despite occasional violations, they complied with European standards,” said Eduard Sharmazanov, HHK spokesman.



“President Serzh Sargsian pointed out that the registered violations could not have affected the final outcome of the elections.”



But the leaders of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which came fifth in the poll and which was until two months ago in the government coalition, approved HAK’s decision to abandon its seats in the council in protest against the alleged rigging of the election. It said it would not recognise the ballot results as legal.



Other observers were more measured in their criticism, but most seemed to agree that Armenia had missed a chance to make good on promises it made this year to the delegates from the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe to reform electoral legislation, and ensure polls were free and fair.



“Our satisfaction in seeing the citizens electing their city council has been tempered by deficiencies in the conduct of the vote,” said Nigel Mermagen, head of a delegation observing the poll for the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities.



“Democracy is not only about the organisational framework of elections. It is about electoral conduct and culture. Elections have to be clear, fair and transparent even beyond polling stations.”



Sara Khojoian is a journalist from Armenianow.com, and a participant in IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network. Anait Danielian is a correspondent for the Karabakh magazine Analitikon, for the Armenian agency www.hetq.am, and is a member of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalist Network.



IWPR country director Seda Muradian also contributed to this report.

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