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Englishman in Yerevan:

An experience with Armenia’s parliamentary elections

Peter Edwards has been living in Armenia since August 2016. He talks about his experience working with the Citizen Observer Initiative and his impressions of Armenia’s parliamentary elections that were held on April 2nd 2017.

Text : Peter Edwards    Photo : PAN Photo

 


An Intern

I joined Transparency International Armenia (TIA) as an intern in February 2017. TIA was looking for an intern to assist with tasks related to the parliamentary elections, which I immediately started working on. I became involved with Citizen Observer Initiative as TIA is one of the main organizations involved. Citizen Observer Initiative was founded in 2013 by a number of local NGOs and activists who shared concerns over the state of democracy in Armenia. The Citizen Observer Initiative (COI) is currently headed by Transparency International Armenia, Asparez Journalists Club and Europe in Law Association. For this election, there were 2725 local observers, 147 Diasporan Armenian observers and 100 non-Armenian observers registered under COI who took part in observing the parliamentary elections. Among the Diasporan observers were celebrities Serj Tankian, Arsinée Khanjian, Atom Egoyan and Eric Nazarian.
Previous to interning at TIA, I was researching Armenia’s elections from the time of independence up until the 2013 presidential election, with a focus on electoral fraud. I welcomed the opportunity to work once again on elections, and this time, I was to gain a more practical experience of Armenia’s electoral process. I felt that what I had worked on previously set me up for my tasks ahead. Part of my work involved creating a logistical guide for observers coming from abroad to observe the elections, reviewing the shortcomings of the new Electoral Code and general tasks assisting and supporting the election team.

The Observer
Although I was not an observer at a polling station, I had previously familiarized myself with observer manuals. I knew that as an observer, your task is far from straightforward. During each election in Armenia, polling stations are filled with party proxies, national observers and international observers. The polling station can look chaotic at times, making an observers’ task complex. It is well known that there were many observers present at the polling stations, approximately 28,000 in total were registered as observers. However, the purpose and impartiality of many of these observers can be questioned. Many of these observers were believed to belong to political party controlled groups or people posing as observers, neither of which were concerned about free and fair elections.
On the day of the elections, I was working at the Citizen Observer Initiative’s press center. My tasks involved looking after the press desk, making sure that journalists attending our press conferences signed up and received press releases, general support tasks and monitoring the web-cameras at polling stations. The latter task involved sampling 10% of web-cameras during voting hours at polling stations and a further 10% during the vote count procedure, employing a pre-approved methodology. In total, there were 1500 cameras installed at polling stations throughout Armenia. My task was to observe each camera for at least one minute in order to see whether the web cameras were working and then record the data. The task was simple and laborious but important nonetheless.
Armenia’s 2017 parliamentary elections marked the first time that web-cameras were operational at polling stations. The move came as part of the new Electoral Code that was adopted in time for the parliamentary elections. There was a lot of pessimism surrounding the introduction of web cameras in polling stations, with many quick to dismiss them as a gimmick. There seemed to be some trouble with accessing the web camera portal during the start of voting, leading people to disregard them as a credible and useful asset. My experience suggests otherwise. The majority of the web cameras I sampled during voting and the vote count were working. Moreover, for the brief time I observed each camera I happened to come across several electoral violations such as violating the right to secret ballot. If a special team of observers were tasked with observing a range of web-cameras on election day, then instances of electoral violations could be observed and recorded via web-camera footage. Thus, serving the very purpose that they were set up for.

New Electoral Code, Old Problems
Although having researched Armenia’s elections and expecting electoral violations, keeping up to date with the media, social media and the COI interactive map of recorded electoral violations was a totally different experience altogether. Instances of large scale electoral violations has accompanied each election in Armenia.
Armenia’s new Electoral Code was adopted with the negotiation and input from all major parties addressing longstanding issues with Armenia’s electoral process, but fell short of addressing all issues, with loopholes still remaining. However, even if the Electoral Code addressed everything comprehensively then this would not necessarily mean that the Electoral Code would be followed to the letter in practice. Furthermore, the Electoral Code alone is not enough to address all of the issues and longstanding concerns associated with Armenia’s electoral process.
Vote buying and pressure on voters still remains an issue and the recent parliamentary elections were no exception. There is no will on behalf of the government to open and conduct large scale investigations into the matter. Just before the parliamentary elections, the media reported that 100 schools were conducting illegal campaigning for the ruling Republican Party. Recently, the owner of the SAS supermarket chain can be heard on a leaked audio recording pressurizing employees to collect names of relatives and friends who will be voting for the ruling Republican Party, and threatening to punish those who do not comply. This is not an isolated case and the threat of losing one’s job makes people highly susceptible to this pressure.


The future

In recent years there has been a rise in civic activism in the form of mass mobilization. We can see this at protest movements such as the 2012 “Save Mashtots Park” movement, the 2013 protests against the hike in transport fares from 100 AMD to 150 AMD and the “Electric Yerevan” protests (2015 protest against a planned rise in the cost of electricity). These protest movements have been successful in reversing government decisions. The protests have centered around one objective, and have been successful in uniting citizens of all backgrounds.
It is evidently clear that citizens will mobilize in large numbers on the streets where they believe the government has crossed the line. This energy and willingness to rapidly mobilize needs to be channeled into working towards long term solutions towards the improvement of life in Armenia. The process will of course not be easy and requires the whole of society to work together. In a country like Armenia where there is a detachment and increasing isolation between citizens and those that govern, Civil Society Organizations, community groups, NGOs and the media can help bridge the gap between citizens and the government. This of course depends on the willingness of civil society, citizens and the government to start constructive dialogue and build healthy relationships. The contract between citizens and the government needs to be renegotiated. Citizens must demand a greater stake in the decision making of the country and not just leave it until election day.
History tells us that no government can be left to their own devices. Politicians alone cannot act in the best interests of the citizens they represent. It’s up to the citizenry to relentlessly continue negotiating a greater stake and say in the process of government.