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Armenian elections: 49%, the new 99%?

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Alexis Krikorian


Polling station n° 1, School 93, Davtashen district, Yerevan, 1st April.

The elections of 2nd April in Armenia were an important test for the Armenian democracy. The Diaspora took this opportunity to commit itself more strongly to democracy and human rights in Armenia. Yet, the result is quite disappointing in the way it was obtained.

At the beginning of March, even before the official start of the campaign (5 March), many people openly said, when speaking about the elections of 2nd April, that they did not intend to take part in the vote, preferring to abstain. The word was also that vote buying had already begun.

A few weeks later, just a few days before the election, Yerevan resembled a who's who of the Armenian Diaspora. One could in fact end up drinking coffee in the back room of a bistro with Atom Egoyan, Serj Tankian, or Arsinée Khadjian.

Hyestart already explained, in the text "What Hyestart means by politics", that it does not intend to engage in a partisan way, but in a citizen way. In another recently published article (entitled "Armenia - Diaspora: Let us build a common destiny on a democratic and human rights Basis"), we explained why we wanted to observe the Armenian Parliamentary elections.

One of the pillars of cultural democracy, which is at the core of Hyestart's mission, is the freedom to participate in cultural life (defined in article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR). The first goal of Hyestart, to support the development of cultural democracy and the implementation of free participation in cultural life, is to defend artistic freedoms, freedom of expression and, more generally, human rights. One of them is defined in Article 21 of the UDHR as follows: " Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives".

It was not about choosing a particular party, but ensuring, as far as possible, by taking part in a broad citizens' movement, that the elections were as much as possible free and fair. From our point of view, it's the country's democratic future, which was at stake. For it is clear that cultural democracy will only flourish in Armenia if political democracy, whose free and fair elections are an essential element, develops in a harmonious way, moving as far as possible away from detestable practices such as ballot box stuffing, vote buying, bullying, etc. For Hyestart, as we have said, this was a citizen commitment.

On the whole, what were the positive aspects of the elections?

First of all, these were the first elections marking a transition from a presidential system to a parliamentary system of proportional representation in which, normally, power is built on the basis of coalitions and therefore based on the basis of agreements and compromises among parties that do not pass the 50% mark alone. As may be the case in Germany for example.

Secondly, the growing citizen engagement of the Diaspora and the Armenian citizens themselves in the same movement for free and fair elections in Armenia is another truly positive point.

What were the negative points?

Firstly, vote buying by a number of political actors, starting with the two main contenders, the Republican Party of Serge Sargsyan and the Tsarukyan Alliance of businessman Gagik Tsarukyan. Some well-informed people predicted a few days before the election that the latter was now so well observed that it was necessary from now on for certain Armenian political parties to go straight to vote buying.

On 27 March, the "Union of Informed Citizens" NGO revealed the use of the administrative resource by about 100 school directors across the country in favor of the ruling Republican Party. Of the 136 directors who were called by the NGO, 114 admitted having drawn up lists of parents of students ready to support the Republican Party. This revelation undoubtedly led the United States and the European Union to adopt on 29 March, 4 days before the elections, a joint declaration expressing their concern following the accusations of vote buying in Armenia and the "systematic use" of administrative resources during the current election campaign. This was the official confirmation of what was publicly known in Armenia. Maybe it was too little, too late from countries, which had funded at great expense voting machines, surveillance cameras at polling stations. In other words, an infrastructure normally allowing for a clean and incontestable election. Already in early March, as we have seen, the rumor about vote buying was already running. By the end of March, in the last week before the election, the massive vote buying seemed to be a reality accepted by all, except by those who were behind it. There has been talk of sums of up to 40,000 Armenian Drams (EUR 75), a large sum in Armenia, which represents one-quarter of the average monthly salary in a country where one third of the population lives below the poverty line.

Then, the abstention declared by many Armenians. As soon as one speaks of the elections with citizens, it is a subject, which often comes up (with that of vote buying): the will to abstain on Election Day in order to stress one's distrust of the system. In the end, the participation in Armenia is rather low. On 2nd April, it was only 60.86%. In the polling station I observed, the No. 1 polling station at School 93 of the Davtashen district of Yerevan, the participation was 58.5% (1,095 voters out of 1,873 potential voters).

Finally, if the participation, thanks to the Citizenobserver initiative led by three local NGOs (Asbarez, Transparency International and Europe in Law) as observers of around 300 citizens of the Diaspora was positive, the fact remains that the organizers seemed to expect more participants. And in a country with 2,000 polling stations, many more would have indeed been necessary! Fortunately, the involvement of Armenian citizens as local observers compensated to the extent that there was in total around 3500 (real) observers during these elections. This gives a ratio of almost 2 independent observers per polling station. In fact, Citizenobserver announced that 75% of the polling stations (1,500 out of 2,000) could be covered by a pair of independent observers. More worryingly, it was said before the elections that there were up to 28,000 observers in total. How does one explain such a difference between the figures of 3,500 and 28,000? Who could these 24,500 mysterious observers be? There was serious cause for concern about the conduct of the elections, a few days ahead of them. Were they going to invade the polling stations in order to create over-crowding, disorder? Would a fire be put in the polling station that would be allocated to us? Would the food we were offered be poisoned? The craziest rumors were running. However, on the day of the election, at Davtashen School 93, the relationship between us, the local observers, the proxies and the members of the electoral commission was on the whole cordial.

In total, the Diaspora observers were able to observe only about one in six polling stations nationwide. It was therefore decided to concentrate them on the capital Yerevan, which has four of the thirteen national constituencies. However, the problems of electoral fraud, as acknowledged by the main stakeholders, seem to be concentrated in the Armenian provinces. It is therefore legitimate to question the relevance of deploying international observers in the capital to the detriment of the provinces, even if for logistical reasons this can be understood. For it is necessary to know that the complexity of the Armenian electoral process means that an observer must be mobilized for up to 24 hours on Election Day. From 6 a.m. on Sunday to 6 a.m. on Monday. We'll come back to that.

One can also explain this relatively small figure of 300 by a tactic of the government, which consisted in confirming the date of the election only on Monday, 5 March. This may have discouraged a number of potential participants. It is not always easy for working people to take a week's holiday three weeks before departure to Armenia. A bit of a last minute thing!

Polling station n° 1, Davtashen District, Yerevan, Armenia

How was this day in the No. 1 polling station of Davtashen School 93?

It all started with a taxi that never came, although it had been ordered the day before. It seems that other observers had the same experience. Luckily, we finally got another one. Arriving at 6:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the start of the electoral commission meeting, we discover a huge school, the 93 school in Davtashen, which is in what the locals call the "village" of Davtashen (as opposed to the "city" with its towers of the Soviet era).

The building is in good condition. It is quite big. There are three polling stations, each with officially with a little less than 2000 registered voters. So potentially we could expect to see thousands of voters walk in that day. Because polling station n° 1 is located just in front of the main entrance of the school giving access to the three polling stations. The doors will open constantly from 8 a.m. (start of the vote) to 8 p.m. (end of the vote). It's going to be cold. We will have to arm ourselves with patience.

You have to begin by understanding who is who. The 8 members of the electoral commission of this polling station are here. The representatives of the political parties running in this election are there too. National observers too. Most of whom will prove to be very discreet. And people who don't belong here and should be asked to leave.

The box containing the stamps of the 8 members of the commission, the ballots, the envelopes, the voters’ list, the stickers (omnipresent in Armenian life) is well sealed. A random draw is organized to distribute the shifts among the members of the commission throughout the day.

Voting in Armenia is a complicated affair. How is it organized?

Upon arrival, the voter presents a piece of ID that is read by an electoral machine funded by the EU and the United States. If all goes well, the voter gets a coupon with which he moves on to the second stage: that of the signature in the voters' list. Once his name is found, he signs and the member of the commission stamps with his personal stamp both his signature and his coupon. With his stamped coupon, the voter then moves on to the third step: the distribution of ballots (9 for 9 parties or party alliances) and the envelope. He or she can then go into the voting booth to slip one of the nine ballots into the envelope. On the front of the ballot is the name of the party or alliance. On the reverse side, the voter can choose to vote for a candidate from the local list (Armenia is divided into 13 constituencies, there are thirteen lists by party and constituency) by making a "V" in front of the name of a candidate in the corresponding list, but there is no obligation to do so. He or she can vote for the national list only. Finally, on the 5th and penultimate stage (!), he or she then goes to the ballot box where the member of the electoral commission in office sticks a small sticker on the ballot through a notch made in the envelope. Finally, sixth and final stage, the voter can slip the envelope into the ballot box! A real uphill battle! A labyrinth that can multiply the possibilities of fraud.

registrar of Davatashen's polling station n° 1

For example, giving a filled ballot to a voter before he enters a polling station and asking him to slip it into the ballot box.

Alternatively, preparing ballots in advance for voters (instead of handing them out one by one) by putting the ruling party ballot on top. In my polling station, it seems to me that this practice has taken place, but I am not sure.

Or make a pen mark on the envelope before it is slipped into the ballot box to invalidate the ballot. This practice would take place in villages.

Or get out of the polling booth with the 8 unused ballots to show for whom one has voted.

Or have the voters lists signed by a voter who is not included in the list. I have personally been able to identify two such cases. In one case, a woman who had found that someone else had signed in her place made a real scandal. In the other case, a woman was allowed to sign instead of her mother, supposedly.

Or allow voting without signature in the voters' list. In our office, during the counting of votes, we had two signatures less in the voters' list than the total number of voters given by the machine. In the polling station next door, where there were no international observer, the difference appeared to be about twenty. Who are the 20 voters who did not sign the voters' list? If all the country's polling stations were at that level, that would make 40,000 mystery voters!

The camera filming the different voting operations was placed in such a location that it could not, in my opinion, film anything relevant at all. At the beginning of the day, it did not even work. After a complaint from my partner Tatevik, it seems that things went back to normal. At my request, a member of the electoral commission placed, as is obligatory, several sets of empty ballots in the bins of the voting booths. Our station is large, it has four of them. At 8 a.m. the vote is declared open. The first voters arrive. At this moment a delegation of the European Parliament led by MEP Franck Engel also arrives. The exchange is courteous. It seems that this delegation does its job well, asks many questions, takes notes. It stays an hour in total. Disturbing detail, the last envelopes that will be counted in the middle of the night, those of the first hour, were very rarely in favor of the ruling party. At that same time, the polling station next door was overwhelmed, but neither we nor the delegation of the European Parliament had access to it. Later in the day, there were two more visits by OSCE delegations. These delegations made less of an impression on me.

After Franck Engel's departure, the entrance to the polling station (and access to it) became very confusing. There were too many people, cars, and small groups of unidentified men either in front of the school or in the very entrance of the school, which is prohibited by the electoral code. We notified it. At one point, a minibus was even seen in front of the school. It had come to drop a large number of voters. Temporary barriers after the main entrance of the school would have allowed to channel the flows and to reduce the impression of chaos that reigned when the turnout was very high between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. These barriers would not have solved the problem of overcrowding in front of the building, but it could have solved the problem in the entrance of the building. Or helped solve it.

Over time, the complicity between police officers and some representatives of political parties became evident. The violation of the secrecy of the vote was, if not recurrent, at least important. People talked from one booth to the other. Others came out of the voting booth with the ballot in hand and slipped it in the envelope in plain view. People were obviously guided in their vote. These violations were reported, noted, officially notified. But it was impossible to raise them all. At some point, in case of strong turn out, in the middle of chaos, one is necessarily overwhelmed. And the hundreds of violations noted by Citizenobserver de facto cover only a part of the reality.

A person with a disability cannot vote because access to persons with disabilities is not ensured, although it should have been according to the electoral code.

At the close of the office, at 8 p.m., the long phase of counting begins. The members of the commission complied with the obligation of no break.

As we have seen, in our polling station we had two signatures less in the voters' list than the total number of voters given by the machine. This means that voters voted without signing the voters' list with the active or passive complicity of one or more members of the commission. Or in the best case scenario, the chaos was such that they were overwhelmed by the turn out at some point.

The representatives of the parties are with us around the counting table where normally only members of the committee are allowed to sit. Again, we will have to be patient, the counting of the front and back of the ballots will last long hours. The cold is more and more intense.

At around 3 a.m., at the end of the count, the results of our polling station were as follows:

Minibus dropping voters in front of school 93, Davtashen  district, Yerevan, 2nd April 2017 (Parliamentary elections)

Republican Party: 441 votes (40%)

Tsarukyan Alliance: 337 votes (30.7%)

Yelk Alliance (release): 93 votes (8.5%)

Armenian Renaissance: 83 votes (7.6%)

Congress Alliance (Ter Petrosyan): 73 votes (6.67%)

ARF: 35 votes (3.2%)

ORO Alliance: 22 votes (2%)

Free Democrats: 5 votes (0.45%)

Communists: 3 votes (0.3%)

Daron Markaryan, the mayor of Yerevan, won 321 votes out of the 441 votes in favor of the Republicans!

At national level, the following results emerged at midday on Monday 3rd April:

Republican Party: 49.15%

Tsarukyan Alliance: 27.35%

Yelk: 7.78%

ARF: 6.58%.

The other parties / alliances got less than 5% of the votes, thus blocking their entry into Parliament.

The Republican Party would have 55 seats out of 101. It can therefore rule alone. The last polls were putting them at 32% only. This result is therefore unexpected for the party in power. A bit like magic! Fraud and numerous irregularities on Election Day and perhaps the ensuing night, combined with massive vote buying in the weeks leading to Election Day, explain in part the outcome of the parliamentary elections of 2nd April. Armenian democracy is not growing. There's something to be groggy about. A terrible headache seized me the day after the election. I chose to escape a thank you reception given at AGBU to take refuge in a church. I am not religious, but I needed calm. I had to get out of the din.

In the future, it will be necessary to ensure an even more massive citizen engagement at local and international level. The Diaspora should not send 300 observers only, but 2000 to cover all polling stations. With regards to vote buying, the ways forward are less obvious due to the economic context and the lack of confidence in the country's justice system. Civic education will probably have to be strengthened, and perhaps, nevertheless, it will be necessary to strengthen the legal arsenal condemning this practice and, above all, to apply the law. Broad topic!

Nevertheless, we must continue to move forward!

View from school, Davtashen District, Yerevan

View on Yerevan from Schoold 93, Davtashen district, Yerevan

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