On February 19, 2008, the presidential election took place in the Republic of Armenia. The American Bar Association provided an Election Initiative 2008, and I participated as an observer in one of the “election ambulances”. These constituted a fleet of taxis with participants, including attorneys and journalists, who were assigned certain precincts and responded to telephone calls made to a central hotline about problems in the voting.
The day started when I accompanied an Armenian attorney and two other observers to our assigned precinct. At the voting places, which were usually schools as in the United States, there were election commissioners and proxies or representatives for candidates to monitor the voting. Under the election laws, no more than 15 voters were to be in the voting area at one time. All public-area posters and advertising for the candidates were to be removed two days before the Election Day throughout the country. Yet, as we drove around the capital of Yerevan, we saw poster after poster of the current prime minister still up. His campaign offices with banners and posters were next to the voting places. This was clearly a violation of the election laws.
Calls to the election hotline mostly concerned threats of assaults and violence against proxies for other candidates who wanted to register protocols of voting law violations. After several routine runs to various precinct locations, we were called to respond to an emergency; a proxy, or a person acting as a representative of a presidential candidate, was being threatened for attempting to register complaints about the election procedure. (We saw several instances of this throughout the day.)
One of these calls brought our “ambulance” back to a polling place we had visited earlier. In the hour before the polling place closed, I stood as an observer watching one of the Armenian lawyers trying to support a proxy register a protocol of fraud in the election process. The Commissioners were refusing to accept the protocol. The chief Election Commissioner was absent and remained absent from the voting locale for some time. The other commissioners wouldn’t sign the protocol. The proxy who wanted to register the protocol had been roughed up and all the buttons on his jackets were missing.
As I stood there - part of the team of observers – 30 to 40 men swarmed into the voting hall. They filled the hall and the entrance hall to the school. It was obvious that they had been summoned to this polling place because of the persistence shown by this proxy. Several of the gang of men assessed the situation and went up to the attorney from our ambulance and took a picture of her. Another international observer and I were the only westerners there. They surrounded me. I did not believe that they were voters from that area, but rather that they had come to stuff the ballot box at the end of the day. We were at an impasse, and the ABA staff attorney persisted in pressing for the complaint to be accepted, despite the looming presence of all these men dressed in black. Finally, the protocol was accepted under great pressure. However, the Armenian observers were concerned that these men who left the polling building were waiting outside to do them harm. We were advised to leave before the polls closed, when the lights would go out. Fortunately, our “ambulance” had moved closer to the exit and we made a speedy exit to the taxi. Everyone was silent as we rode away. It was an election day I will not forget.
The results of the elections brought many reactions.
One candidate summed up the election day as the following: “The mass stuffings [sic] in numerous electoral stations, the general giving out of electoral bribe [sic], open and double ballots, mass refusal for registering the protests presented in the written form by the members of the OYP commission, as well as the falsifications made during the calculation of the votes in numerous stations put in question the legality, freedom and justice of the elections…” YEREVAN, FEBRUARY 20, NOYAN TAPAN.
Of the nine candidates, two were considered strong contenders: one is the current prime minister and the other is the former first president of Armenia. The results of the election: Prime Minister Serge Sargsian received 52.86 percent of the votes (therefore, he won in the first tour of the presidential elections), Levon Ter-Petrosian was in second place with 21.5 percent, and OYP Chairman Artur Baghdasarian took third place with 16.66 percent.
Unfortunately, the political climate here seems to be following the Putin/Russian model of corruption and voting fraud and coercion. The current president will assume the position of prime minister, and the prime minister will become president.
Violence broke out on March 1 following daily non-violent protests that began the day after the election. Protests stemmed from the public’s belief in the corruption of the election and the aftermath of oppression which ensued. Opposition leaders were arrested. The former first president – and the strongest opposing candidate – was put on house arrest. Soldiers and tanks were in the street. A state of emergency was declared for 20 days, or until March 20. As I write this article, the state of emergency will expire this evening.
The Rule of Law is struggling in Armenia.
Barbara L. Edin is a Maryland attorney working overseas.