WARSAW (RFE/RL) — Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have reaffirmed their preliminary assessment of Armenia’s recent parliamentary elections, saying that they were marred by “credible” reports of vote buying and voter intimidation.
The OSCE’s Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed the vast majority of almost 440 European observers who monitored the April 2 elections. In a joint statement issued on April 3, they said the Armenian authorities largely respected “fundamental freedoms” during the “well-administered” vote. But they also reported “credible information about vote-buying, and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.”
The European Union and the United States were quick to endorse those findings, while cautiously praising the authorities’ conduct of the polls. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said through a spokesperson on April 4 that the official vote results, which gave victory to the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), “reflect the overall will of the Armenian people.”
“Widespread allegations of vote-buying in favor of certain parties were reported throughout the country and the OSCE/ODIHR [election observation mission] received many credible reports directly from voters,” the OSCE mission said in a separate, final report released late on Monday. “Allegations extended into election day, when media reported on and [the mission] observed large groups of voters visiting parties’ campaign offices before voting.”
The mission said OSCE observers also received “credible reports of pressure and intimidation on voters, especially on private and public sector employees.” It urged the Armenian authorities and parties to “increase public trust in the integrity of the elections” by discouraging Armenians from selling their votes and ensuring that they are not forced to vote for anyone.
Although the HHK is not mentioned by name, the appeal seems primarily addressed to the party headed by President Serzh Sarkisian. Throughout the parliamentary race the HHK was accused by its political opponents and independent media of handing out vote bribes and pressurizing schoolteachers, civil servants and other public sector employees to vote for it.
The ruling party was also embarrassed by a post-election publication of secretly recorded audio suggesting that employees of an HHK-affiliated businessman were warned to help him get reelected to Armenia’s parliament or lose their jobs. Other wealthy government-connected candidates have also faced such allegations.
Armenian opposition parties say that vote buying was decisive in the HHK’s election victory. The HHK denies having systematically resorted to the illegal practice, however. It insists that the vote was largely democratic.
The OSCE mission also reported irregularities witnessed by its monitors in or around polling stations on election day. “The voting process was assessed negatively in 12 per cent of observations by IEOM observers, which is a high number and of concern,” it said, singling out overcrowding.
“Large groups of people were present in the immediate vicinity of polling stations in 30 per cent of observations, with tension seen in 6 per cent and intimidation of voters in 4.5 per cent of observations,” reads the mission’s report. “The police did not consistently enforce the legal prohibition to gather in front of polling stations … Intimidation of voters was reported more often at overcrowded polling stations compared to other polling stations observed.”
The report also gives a negative assessment of 32 of 164 vote counts monitored by OSCE/ODIHR representatives at polling stations across the country. It primarily blames this on “interference of unauthorized people.”
The OSCE mission did not report significant instances of multiple voting, one of the most serious forms of fraud that marred previous Armenian elections. The authorities in Yerevan enacted last fall a set of opposition-backed legal amendments designed to preclude such violations.
That led to the introduction of electronic voter authentication devices in all polling stations across the country. The authorities also installed web cameras to broadcast online voting and ballot counting in the vast majority of those facilities. The EU allocated early this year over $7 million for the purchase of this equipment.