The Observers: “We are interested in the process”

For 12 years Armenia has hosted foreign election monitors. And for 12 years those monitors have, mostly, filed the same report: “. . . failed to meet international standards”; “. . . free but not transparent”.

The May 12 parliamentary vote will be witnessed by several hundred such observers from 25 countries, brought to Armenia by several international organizations. Additionally, some 4,500 Armenians will also observe.

As the term “Free and Fair” has become the catch phrase of Decision 2007, officials are hopeful that this team of specially-trained watchdogs will find reasons to give Armenia passing marks for the first time in its independence.

Despite the fact that observation missions can not issue sanctions, the hope is that Armenia today is more determined to earn international respect by conducting fair voting.

Speaker of the Armenian Parliament Tigran Torosyan said that the May elections are of significant importance. “The ratio of political parties is a secondary issue; the top priority today is to conduct free democratic elections.”

The Armenian Central Election Committee has issued regulations of the rights and duties of observers as well as restrictions. According to the regulations, the mission of the observers is to collect reliable information in election processes, such as opening and closing of polling stations, voting, the vote count and to prepare independent and impartial reports.

The observers can not interfere in the process of elections or with the work of the electoral committee. Nor are they allowed contact with voters.

The observers should be registered with the CEC no later than 10 days before the elections. In addition to those coming from abroad (who must be invited by state bodies of Armenia), observers may be chosen from local organizations that promote democracy and human rights. Expenses are covered by the sending organization, including stipends and per diems. For its part, the Armenian Government agrees to provide security for the observers.

The CEC has, so far, registered eight local and four foreign organizations who will be monitors on May 12.

“It is primarily Armenia that most of all needs elections meeting international standards and it is more important than several million dollars.”

Parliament Speaker Tigran Torosyan, Deputy Chairman of the Republican Party of Armenia

The biggest number of international observers, more than 300, will be deployed from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, (ODIHR) which is the election-monitoring body of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The mission intends to join efforts with the short-term observers from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. The May elections will be the sixth observed by ODIHR observes.

Thirteen experts of the core team of ODIHR Election Observation Mission (EOM) drawn from 12 OSCE participating states are based in Yerevan. They will be joined by 29 long-term observers and 300 short-term observers.

While the members of the core team are professionals who are contracted by the Warsaw-based ODIHR office, the long- and short-term observers are offered by the 55 OSCE participating states.

Ambassador Boris Frlec, who heads the ODIHR mission says the recently amended election code of Armenia provides a sound framework for democratic elections, but the challenge for the authorities is its implementation in good faith, so that this and future elections are held in accordance with OSCE commitments.

“Armenia stands a very good chance to conduct a democratic and free elections and I would like to emphasize very specifically that it is our interest to observe such elections. It would make our work very easy and very short. We are not interested in results – who wins and who does not. We are interested in the process.”

Other groups of observers are he Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Executive Committee which will deploy a team of 150 people from 12 ex-soviet states, a record high number comparing to previous years. Also the CIS Parliamentary Assembly will send 30 observers.

“If the upcoming elections in Armenia fail to meet international standards, the issue of the republic’s participation in the Millennium Challenge Account will be reconsidered.”

U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Armenia Anthony Godfrey

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will represent a team of 41 short term observers led by Leo Platvoet, A Senator from Netherlands. Also a pre-election mission of six experts is already deployed in Yerevan to assess the political climate in the run-up to the elections.

The number of local observers will be more than 4,500.

The largest domestic organization is “It’s Your Choice” (IYC) with 3,000 observers and the smallest is “Election System Center” NGO, with 10.

Harutyun Hambartsumyan, chairman of IYC says that among observers there are some Diaspora Armenians and eight foreign students who study in Armenia.

The organization invited citizens to become observers by an educational appeal: “What can a citizen do to help make the coming election in May free and fair? Take action! Became an election observer”. The NGO pays observers 2,000 drams ($5.55) on the day of elections to cover the transportation expenses and meals.

“Sometimes people complain about observers, saying there were obviously violations during the voting and the observers were doing nothing. It is just, though, that some people confuse the observers and proxies and their obligations,” Hambartsumyan says.

He says, too, that observers are asked to not speak with media.

“There were cases when observers were interviewed in the morning, when the elections had just started, and told journalists that no violations were fixed so far. Then their quotes were broadcast in evening, while by the evening many violations had been registered.”

For the first time in Armenia, disabled will be among observers. The NGO “Unison” for support of people with special needs, will send 18 observers, seven of whom are disabled (with six of them in wheelchairs).

As Election Day draws closer, the rhetoric for proper conduct intensifies. Some experts have even said that May 12 represents the most important vote in the 15-year history of independent Armenia.