Still a Long Breath Needed Towards a Democratic Country

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The first parliamentary elections in Armenia after the referendum revealed themselves to be well-administered and respectful of fundamental freedoms. But problems such as vote-buying and interference in the process remain

On 2nd of April, the first parliamentary elections after the referendum of 6 December 2015 took place, which changed Armenia’s political system from semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. While, the parliamentary elections were conducted in a peaceful manner and well administered, many irregularities such as vote-buying, pressure on voters, and grouping outside of the polling stations have been observed.

The Constitutional amendments reduced the power of the President in favor of the Parliament and the Prime Minister. Together with the reform of the Electoral Code those steps are considered to make the institutions more democratic and political processes more transparent. Despite guaranteeing basic civic freedoms by the Constitution, Armenia is considered as partial fee with certain restrictions on political pluralism and participation, the functioning of the government, rule of law and civil rights [1]. Armenian civil society faces several restrictions such as cumbersome registration processes [2], the detention of protesters, political prisoners and a media heavily influenced and softly governed by those in power [3]. The multi-party system allows for several political parties and coalitions to run for elections. Five political parties and four party alliances run for elections. The political landscape is dominated by the Republican party with having most posts in national and local governments.

International and citizen observers

The Central Election Commission (CEC) accredited 640 international observers (OSCE/ODIHR, EU Parliamentary Assembly, and Council of Europe) and a total of 28.021 citizen observers. The domestic observers included many supporters of individual candidates, GONGOs and BONGOs making it difficult to estimate how many independent citizen observers participated as observers [4]. A week before the parliamentary elections, Armenian authorities refused the accreditation of international non-governmental observers [5]. EPDE expressed its “serious concerns that the Armenian government might not consider the presence of international observers as an important contribution to enhancing the electoral process”. Both the refusal and its justification contradict the obligation of Armenia as a member of the OSCE to invite international observers from other OSCE countries [6]. Discrepancies existed over the role of the Election observers as citizen observers received the instructions to intervene in the process if irregularities are observed which is contrary to OSCE/ODIHR non-interference principle. The Electoral Code opened the possibility to limit the number of citizen observers and media at the polling stations which raised concerns before the election day, though during the election day this possibility was not used by the Precinct Election Commission (PEC).

Election Day

New voter identification technologies and cameras installed in the polling stations have been introduced to reduce electoral irregularities and support free and fair elections. This facilitated a rather efficient voter identification process and allowed to record and observe the polling stations on election day via the internet. Most of the video cameras did function during the day, however, several instances have been registered where video cameras did not work.

On election days, positive examples of polling station organizing and administering the voting process as defined by the Electoral Code proved that elections can be well organised, however, many polling stations gave a different impression. Overcrowded stations, grouping outside, vote-buying, non-authorized people inside the station often being friends with PEC staff, refusal to registering incidents in the registrar, people from outside Armenia on the voting list, police officials inside the polling stations, and too many assisted voting’s are some irregularities to name. It was noticeable that often PEC staff has not been well trained or fully aware of the new Electoral Code which allowed for technical mistakes.

The new Electoral Code has not limited all possible attempts for electoral fraud. It was possible to bring mobile phones into the voting booth, which was done by many people and it has been observed that mobile phone pictures were used to prove the voting for a certain political party. In addition, the Electoral Code left open the possibility to take out of the voting booth the empty ballots. In some cases, votes have been casted using different color pens. The counting procedure and tabulation went without major incidences. Though, potential manipulations had been observed. For example, it had been observed that the protocols have been reprinted at the tabulation center, which made it possible for adjusting the final numbers on the protocols.

Elections are crucial moments in any country, they give citizens the possibility to participate at the political life and express their political preferences. Though what matters and gives insight into how developed democratic standards and institutions of a country are, is what happens between elections. The general political environment and the level of political education are preconditions for free and fair elections. In Armenia, many people distrust the political system and political elites. Attempts of electoral fraud and vote buying has been recorded already before the election day when an activist could document that school directors use their influence to direct people in their voting behavior [7]. There is hardly any political culture cultivated in the rural areas outside of Yerevan. A pluralistic participation at political and civic life by different societal groups is rather difficult to observe. Women, youth and minorities still participate to a lower degree at the political life.

The role of women, minority and youth in elections

Though a quota of 25 percent of women on the partly lists has been introduced for these elections [8] and minorities could receive up to four earmarked seats on the national party lists, neither women nor minorities had significant positions or high visibility during the election campaign. What will be interesting to observe is how many of the elected women eventually will accept their post. After past elections, the elected women often refused their seat after pressure from the parties leaving the seat open for other men from the party list resulting to that only 10.7 percent of women have been represented in Parliament during the last legislative period. In the Government, only two out of 18 ministers were women [9] [10] . Party political candidates were considered as representing the youth with being under the age of 40 years. None of the party programs addressed pertinent questions of the young generation. For the first time, four representatives of ethnic minorities have won a seat in the parliament. Three through the list of the Republican Party of Armenia (Yazidi, a Kurd and an Assyrian) and one ethnic Russian by the Gagik Tsarukian’s alliance. Their representation could lead to increase attention of minority issues.

The parliamentary elections should motivate the new Government to strengthen its democratic processes and institutions and invest in political education of its citizens and thus regaining trust and confidence of the voters in politics. The conclusions outlined by the international election observation mission and citizen observers could serve as a starting point for strengthening the overall electoral process and preparing for the next elections.

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[1] Freedom House Index, Armenia: https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2016/armenia

[2] CSOs must register with the State Register of Legal Entities with the Ministry of Justice. During the registration process the State Register can request further information or amendments to the Statutes of the Organisation, which prolongs the process. The 2015 CSO Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. United States Agency for International Development. Report available online: https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1861/Europe_Eurasia_CSOSIReport_2015_Update8-29-16.pdf

[3] CIVICUS: https://monitor.civicus.org/newsfeed/2016/06/01/armenia-overview/

[4] In one instance, the major of a city has acted as citizen observer in his town.

[5] European Platform for Democratic Elections, last accessed April 12, 2017, press release: http://www.epde.org/en/newsletter-online/items/epde-condemns-the-armenian-governments-refusal-to-invite-international-citizen-election-observers.html

[6] The agreements set up by the 1990 CSCE/OSCE Copenhagen Document, later reaffirmed in the 1999 OSCE Istanbul Document and in the Decision No. 19/06 (Paragraph 10) of the OSCE Ministerial Council Document “Strengthening the Effectiveness of the OSCE" signed in Brussels in 2006.

[7] MassisPost, Armenian School Principals Accused of Illegal Campaigning, March 24, 2017, available online: https://massispost.com/2017/03/armenian-school-principals-accused-illegal-campaigning/

[8] Positively noted, around 30 percent of the candidates were women.

[9] The World Bank, Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments, Armenia, available online: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SG.GEN.PARL.ZS?locations=AM

[10] Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Ruzanna Tsaturyan, April 1st 2016,  available online: http://www.feminism-boell.org/en/2016/04/01/women-politics-and-political-texts-armenia

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