YEREVAN—Motivated by the recent ferment over the disputed Feb. 18 presidential elections and fed up with the ongoing deficit of democracy in Armenia, hundreds of diasporans streamed into Yerevan this past Sun., May 5, to serve as election observers and media representatives in the city’s municipal race.
The unprecedented observation mission was the first of its kind, with around 100 diasporans (both repatriates and visitors) teaming up with over 150 local volunteers under the banner of Transparency International’s (TI) monitoring team.
I was lucky enough to be a part of this exciting mission. The trainings began in early April; we were taught by professionals about the vast legal web of election observation and given hands-on instruction on how to deal with violations. Materials were provided in both Armenian and English, with the organizers going to great lengths to ensure we were well equipped and ready to do our job. In addition, the entire project was completely non-partisan and the tone was avidly pro-democratic. Everyone was gathered for one unmistakable purpose: to ensure free and fair elections in Armenia for the first time since early independence.
Seeing so many diasporans gathered for this cause was inspiring. Despite the stereotype of many being disconnected from the concerns of the country or coming only as tourists, here was a wide cross-section of all ages and backgrounds putting their money where their mouth is and doing something to help build a more democratic homeland.
The energy leading up to the vote was infectious. We were ready to make a real difference. But something strange happened on Election Day, at least in my precinct: No visible violations took place.
I was stationed in Nubarashen’s 13/35 precinct alongside another TI volunteer from Vanadzor. My partner was a seasoned veteran who had observed three past elections and seen various forms of electoral fraud.
However, what we both witnessed that day was a fairly orderly and well-run electoral operation. The chair and the election commission staffed with running the poll—made up of different representatives from each of the parties in parliament—came in on time and ready for their duties. They were all well versed in their responsibilities and upheld the rules virtually to the tee. They rotated responsibilities every 2 hours as mandated, kept the room at the cap of 15 voters at a time, checked the names and passports thoroughly, and didn’t let anything slide.
On the rare occasion where something did occur—like one woman taking a picture of her ballot—they immediately intervened.
Having us there along with the proxies, fellow members of the media, and observers surely reinforced the rules but, at the end of the day, there was no immediate violation we could register. We even took turns going outside to see if there were buses bringing people in or any sort of campaigning 50 meters from the precinct, but could not detect or record anything.
Of course, I know that this was not the case in other precincts throughout the city. Countless instances of serious irregularities and violations have been reported, especially cases of vote-buying and groups unlawfully loitering in front of precincts to corral voters.
But from conversations with many other fellow observers, the general picture I received is that the majority saw some irregularities and basic mistakes but no major violations in their precincts. Most added that the vote count at their precinct generally matched up with the results reported by the Central Election Commission.
The final official results were 58 percent for the Republican Party, 20 percent for Prosperous Armenia, and 8 percent for Raffi Hovannisian’s “Barev Yerevan” Alliance, with all other parties below the 6 percent threshold. These results are nothing less than shocking to anyone familiar with the widespread disappointment with the ruling regime and governance expressed in general throughout Yerevan.
Again, my assessment comes mostly from personal observations and conversations. I am in no way trying to say that serious violations didn’t happen or that my anecdotal view should be taken as representative of the whole election. However, I can’t help but draw certain conclusions from what I saw and spoke with other colleagues about.
Namely, it seems clear to me that the vast majority of rigging and fraud in Armenia no longer takes place in the precincts on Election Day. The ruling regime has honed its machinery to the point that it can often ensure its results from a distance—past 50 meters from the electoral precincts and certainly outside of the voting room.
Indeed, the voting areas themselves are full of opposition representatives, opposition proxies, observers, and media reps recording the entire process. To falsify the elections inside the voting room on a mass scale and then have all of the opposition representatives sign off on the vote count is certainly no easy task.
What is occurring is, in most cases, taking place outside of the precincts—it’s happening in the buildings, on the blocks, in the homes, in the stores, in the schools, in the neighborhoods, in the institutes, and in the values of the citizenry. It’s going to take a lot more than electoral observers to counteract that.
Yet, I should add that I have come out of this experience with even more faith in the role of impartial observers (both local and diasporan) than I had when I came in. There is definitely power in a citizenry and populace mobilized and willing to vigilantly defend its democratic rights. Without independent observers and the spirit they brought to the process, the fraud would have certainly been even worse.
The main goal should be to build upon and vastly expand the number of such vigilant citizens to the point where fraud can not only be unthinkable in the voting booth, but in every crack and corner of Armenian society.