Saturday, May 26, 2007

OSCE Tones Down Armenian Election Praise

Friday 25, May 2007
Armenia Liberty
By Emil Danielyan

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe effectively completed its two-month vote monitoring in Armenia on Friday after releasing a fresh report that raised more questions about the freedom and fairness of the May 12 parliamentary elections.

The content of the post-election interim report issued by the OSCE’s observer mission in Yerevan contrasted with its earlier, overwhelmingly positive assessment of the Armenian authorities’ handling of the vote. It emphasized and elaborated on Western election observers’ preliminary conclusion that counting of ballots in a large number of polling stations and their subsequent tabulation by district election commissions (TECs) was deeply flawed.

“During these last stages of the election process, the [OSCE mission] observed certain inconsistencies with established regulations and departures from best electoral practice which do not contribute to strengthening public confidence in the election process,” the report said. It said OSCE monitors found “discrepancies, some of them significant” between vote results reported by precinct commissions and the higher-level TECs.

The mission head, Boris Frlec, handed a copy of the report to Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian at a meeting on Thursday. Few of the meeting’s details were reported by the Foreign Ministry’s press service. It quoted Frlec as saying that the vote was “on the whole” an improvement over the previous Armenian elections.

Oskanian was reported to have thanked the OSCE observers for their “objective” assessment of the election conduct. He also told Frlec that next year’s presidential election will be “another important step in strengthening democracy in Armenia.”

In a serious boost to the Armenian government’s international reputation, the preliminary report jointly released by nearly 400 observers representing the OSCE, the European Union and the Council of Europe on May 13 concluded that the elections largely met democratic standards. The OSCE mission’s follow-up report painted a less rosy picture.

“In 35 percent of the [108] polling stations where counting was observed, the PEC (precinct election commission) members had difficulties completing the results protocols,” it said, adding that many of those protocols were “filled out incompletely or incorrectly.”

The mission, deployed by the OSCE’s Warsaw-based Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), said this contributed to “disorganization” at higher-level TECs that tabulated the results in their respective electoral districts. It said Western observers found the tabulation process to be “bad or very bad” in more than a third of Armenia’s 41 TECs. Fourteen of those commissions were observed making changes in the PEC vote protocols in violation of the Armenian Election Code, the mission added.

The code stipulates that the protocols must be delivered to the TECs in special bags sealed by precinct-level election officials. But according to the OSCE’s post-election report, in at least seven district commissions ballot bags were “unsealed, or had clearly been sealed and reopened.” In one of them, it said, observers “saw unsealed bags of ballot papers being taken downstairs to a campaign office of the [governing] Republican Party and then brought back up to the TEC premises sealed.”

The official vote results, reaffirmed by the Central Election Commission (CEC) at the weekend, gave the Republican Party (HHK) a landslide victory in the polls. Armenia’s leading opposition parties have refused to recognize its legitimacy, alleging widespread voter intimidation, vote buying, and other irregularities. Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian and other HHK leaders have strongly denied the allegations.

The OSCE mission also expressed serious concern at a major delay in the publication by the CEC of a precinct-by-precinct breakdown of election results in Yerevan, which is home to more than a third of the country’s population. Its report said the delay “cannot be explained by the slow rate of the counting and tabulation” and constitutes a “significant lapse in the promised transparency of recording election results.” The report did not specify whether these and other reported problems could have affected the overall election outcome.

The Armenian authorities seem worried about its possible impact on the OSCE’s final election verdict which is expected to be delivered by the end of next month. Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian promptly sent a letter to Frlec later on Thursday, asking him to provide “concrete information about those electoral precincts where the mentioned violations were recorded.” That information would enable Armenian prosecutors to investigate the reported fraud and “bring guilty individuals to account,” Hovsepian said in the letter posted on the website of the Prosecutor-General’s Office.

The CEC chairman, Garegin Azarian, also responded to the OSCE criticism in a separate letter sent to Frlec on Friday. Both the OSCE and the CEC refused to publicize it.

The OSCE mission, which has mainly consisted of long-term observers and other ODIHR experts since polling day, wrapped up its two-month activities in Armenia later in the day. A spokesman told RFE/RL that its members will continue to work on the text of their final election report at the ODIHR headquarters and in their respective countries.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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