On 2 April 2017, Armenians were called to the polls to elect a new parliament. Although “new” is not entirely right, because the ruling party, Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), won the absolute majority and was reconfirmed after two decades in power. They just did a good job for the country? Not exactly, at least when you look at the bad economic situation, high poverty, emigration records, … or just ask some people. While international observers, including OSCE and European Union, attested that “elections were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected”, many reports about vote-buying and pressure on civil servants tainted the picture. In this comment, I will talk about my personal experience as an election observer and my thoughts regarding these polls.
Many Changes but No Real Change
These elections were not ordinary ones. After a referendum in 2015 that changed Armenia’s semi-presidential system to a parliamentary one, the significance of April’s elections became much higher. Moreover, a new electoral code came into force which modified the procedures in many ways. It took me a very long time to understand the reform and I believe that a high percentage of Armenians were not able to look through it. A positive innovation is that polling stations were equipped with brand new fingerprint registration machines (sponsored by the EU, investing 7 million Euro) as well as with cameras. At least 1500 of the 2009 polling stations had cameras, but mine did not. These technical innovations had a big share in the mostly well-organized administration on Election Day. The ruling party did everything to prevent these elections from being disputed. The aim was to show the world that Armenia was a healthy democracy. But of course, they could not risk real independent choice that might lead to changes, maybe even losing power. That is why they managed to have everything prepared before 2 April.
“Preparations” Before Elections
When I arrived in Armenia in the end of March, everybody already knew the election results. Many people reported that there was a high pressure on civil servants and employees to vote for the Republican Party. An investigation by the NGO “Union of Informed Citizens” showed part of it: Pretending to be an RPA member, they called various school headmasters and kindergarten directors that are affiliated with the party and asked how election preparations were going. 114 of them submitted lists of staff members who were to be coerced to vote for the Republicans. But where pressure would not work, the RPA chose the method of offering incentives. Media reported that one vote would be worth between 50 and 100$, probably a lot for a country where 30% of the population lives under the poverty line. Vote-buying was not only carried out by the RPA but also by the “opposition” bloc whose leader, Gagik Tsarukyan, is a famous and rich oligarch. The new electoral code ensured that the parties did not have to invest too much money. District candidates, mostly local businessmen, did the job: high competition within the parties led them to use their private money. And since a candidate can only be elected when his party is chosen beforehand, leaders of RPA and Tsarukyan bloc did not have to smirch hands.
My Frustration on Election Day
At first I have to make clear: Many observers reported that in their polling stations (mostly those with cameras), everything was calm. My personal experience was different, though. The election commission in my polling station, consisting of 7 people from different parties, started working at 7am and followed all procedures in a responsible manner. The chairman of the election commission, the only person able to take decisions, was a member of the RPA and of course had the aim to have the voting without any incidents. But the first interesting thing was that he refused to take off the big picture of president Sargsyan on the wall – not a candidate but still representing the ruling party.
At 8am sharp, the first voters were queuing up. Five of the guys did not intend to leave the premises. Almost the whole day – from 8am until early afternoon – they were standing inside or in front of the polling stations, talking to most voters that arrived. Officially, it is not allowed for unauthorized people to be inside the polling station (or outside with less than 50 m distance), but the chairperson did not care. He was even chatting with them. When observers argued repeatedly that this was a violation, the chairperson sent these guys outside. The guys themselves got angry when we filmed them: “wait until you are without your camera!” Every time they entered again, observers complained. During the day, all of them somehow got an observer’s badge (after having a talk with the chairperson in a separate room). The date of issue of these badges was of course long before Election Day – magic happens!
My trust in “observers” at this polling station was very low anyway. Only two young Armenian women seemed to really do their job and report incidents while keeping the observer role. The rest – usually between five and ten people – either did not see anything or were actually party members actively talking to voters all the time and guiding them through the whole process. According to the Armenian women they sometimes even told the voters which candidate to support. When approached regarding this behavior, they justified “because my candidate is just the best one, I want them to take a good decision”.
A few times the polling station got very crowded and messy, usually when big groups of people arrived and were guided inside by one of the suspicious guys. Many people didn’t understand at all the voting process – entering the booth with their partner or just publicly putting their favorite ballot into the envelope. Trying to take outside the ballot papers of the parties they didn’t vote for (they have to put only the preferred party’s ballot into the box) was also a thing that often occurred. They did not have to care about secrecy of voting – everybody could (or should?) know that they chose the RPA. One old lady was especially confused: “Can I put two ballot papers into the envelope?” “No, you have to choose one”, someone answered. “But the guy told me I had to vote for number 6 (RPA) and 12!” Number twelve meant the district candidate on the RPA’s list, but the old lady didn’t get that and thought it was the number of another party, even though there were only nine parties/blocs running.
Apart from messy situations during the day, nothing serious happened during the vote counting in my polling station. Of course, people knew that RPA would have enough votes to maintain power. By the way: when OECD long-term observers arrived, the Sargsyan picture was suddenly covered!
The most frustrating part for me was not that previous vote-buying was so obvious, that the chairperson was friends with most candidates from RPA or that many times the polling station became chaotic. It was the fact that the chairperson refused to write down any of the many obvious incidents: open voting, guiding voters, several people entering the booth and so on. Somehow he was afraid that if there is anything recorded in the log book, he would get serious troubles. Even though observers showed him evidence, he denied everything. When decision-makers are not objective and law doesn’t matter, you are just powerless. There was nothing we could do except reporting to our coordination center from the observer initiative. But we knew this would in the end only be a part of the final report stating that the elections were not fair. And that report coming from an NGO would not disturb the decision-makers at all.
Armenians lost hope
When I told my Armenian friends about my frustration, nobody was surprised: “That’s how we always feel.” Nobody expected the elections to change anything. There is a whole system set to keep the status quo and people neither trust the ruling party nor the opposition ones. For many of them it does not make a difference to sell their vote because in their opinion it does not have much impact anyway. “Elections are just not the way how we can improve our country, there has to be another way”, they say. Let’s still hope that somehow real improvements will come soon – Armenians deserve it!
By Esther Hillmer, 11.04.17