No One Should Have Been Surprised By the Latest Questionable Election

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No One Should Have Been Surprised By the Latest Questionable Election

By Harut Sassounian

Publisher, The California Courier

Dec. 15, 2005

Armenia held a referendum on proposed constitutional changes on November 27. Opposition leaders and foreign observers questioned the election results and made allegations of serious abuse and fraud. Regrettably, this is neither the first nor probably the last questionable election in Armenia.

While it is true that the government is ultimately responsible for all developments in the country, be they positive or negative, one needs to cast a wider net of blame beyond just the current authorities.

Elections were tampered with before the present regime came to power and they would probably be tampered with long after this regime is gone. There are no guarantees that, if and when the opposition comes to power, the elections would be any more honest than they have been up to now.

During the past few years, opposition leaders have held countless demonstrations calling for the resignation of Pres. Kocharian. Because of internal bickering, lack of a popular and competent leadership, and undelivered promises on regime change, the opposition leaders do not have much credibility with the Armenian public. Even though the authorities themselves are not very popular, Armenia’s citizens do not see why they should overthrow the existing leaders, only to replace them with even more unpopular ones.

In this latest election, opposition leaders first called for a “no” vote on the constitutional changes. When they realized that they would not be able to win, they switched their tactics and called for a boycott. Such a decision, however, did not sit well with the European and American governments which viewed the proposed changes as a marked improvement over the existing constitution.

To make matters worse for themselves, the opposition leaders withdraw their representatives from local election commissions nationwide, thus making it easier to tamper with the election results.

By boycotting the election, the opposition leaders thought that they could prevent the participation of one-third of registered voters, which is mandated by Armenian law to make the outcome legal. The surprise was not that there was a 93% “yes” vote on the referendum (it could have been even higher thanks to the opposition’s boycott), but that close to two thirds of the registered voters went to the polls. Most observers felt that this percentage was artificially inflated. It is simply not credible that just about as many people turned out for this referendum as for the previous hotly contested presidential election. In addition, most observers reported that the polling stations were far too deserted to account for such a high turnout. There were strong suspicions of a considerable number of ballot stuffing.

Given the boycott by the opposition, the authorities did not really need to tamper with the election. They could have won it fairly. Three factors contributed to this undesirable outcome: 1) the old habit of tampering with all elections, even when fake ballots were unnecessary for a successful outcome; 2) the inclination of local government officials to help win the election by all possible means in order to preserve their current positions or to be rewarded with more lucrative jobs after the election; and 3) given the mandatory one-third threshold, local officials’ intent to go overboard in order to ensure that they do not fail again to garner the minimum number of votes as they did in the referendum two years ago.

Most western countries that favored the passage of the referendum in the first place do not seem to be too upset with the outcome of these elections. Instead, they have their eyes on the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2007 and the presidential election in 2008. They are busy making plans to ensure that these next two crucial elections are properly held.

It appears that no amount of preparation would guarantee honest elections in Armenia in the near future. The solution to Armenia’s electoral problems is not to be found in the elections per se. Transparent ballot boxes and international observers cannot ensure proper elections in Armenia. All those who truly care about Armenia’s well-being, before worrying about honest elections, must take all necessary steps to ensure that after 70 years of communism a sense of right and wrong is instilled in Armenian society. Once the desire to abide by the rule of law is internalized by the public at large, Armenia would automatically have cops, judges, and government officials who are not corrupt, and hold honest elections.

Maybe then, Armenia’s elections, which are less fraudulent than those held in several other former Soviet Republics, particularly Azerbaijan, would rise to the level of desirable European standards.

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