Observers say Armenian election fairest yet

Agence France Presse — English
May 13, 2007 Sunday 4:10 PM GMT

Observers say Armenian election fairest yet

by Mariam Harutunian

Western observers on Sunday said parliamentary elections in Armenia
were the fairest yet in the ex-Soviet state, now set to be run by a
coalition of parties close to the current government that swept the
vote.

Armenia’s opposition, which claimed the vote was deeply flawed, had
promised to organize mass protests in the event of fraud.

But a Sunday night demonstration organized by a handful of parties
that failed to make it into parliament attracted fewer than 3,000
protesters, less than had attended opposition rallies before the
election.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said
the vote was a clear improvement over previous polls in this small
country wedged between Turkey and Iran.

None of Armenia’s elections had been deemed up to international
standards since the country became independent with the collapse of
the Soviet Union in 1991.

"These Armenian elections were an improvement over previous elections
and were conducted largely in accordance with international
standards," Tone Tingsgaard, one of the leaders of some 300 OSCE
observers, said at a press conference.

In its report the OSCE said improvements include a "dynamic" election
campaign "with extensive media coverage," few irregularities on
election day and increased transparency in vote counting.

It added, however, that "some issues remain unaddressed" and noted
"isolated cases of deliberate falsifications."

The conclusion was a triumph for President Robert Kocharian and his
government, which had come under intense Western pressure to conduct
a fair and open vote. Before the vote the United States threatened
major cuts in foreign aid while the European Union warned of a
rollback in relations with Yerevan.

Cuts in foreign aid could have been disastrous for Armenia, where
more than 30 percent of people already live on less than two dollars
(1.50 euros) a day.

Western support for the vote came as a major disappointment for
opposition parties, which had hoped to use condemnation of the
election as a springboard to contest the results.

The opposition claims violations were rife on election day, including
instances of pro-government parties bribing voters outside polling
stations.

Country of Law, the opposition party that won the most votes, backed
away from earlier promises to hold demonstrations, saying instead it
would seek redress in Armenia’s courts.

"Large-scale violations took place during the process of voting and
vote counting," the party said in a statement. "Threats, mass
distribution of bribes, illegal ballot-box stuffing, major
shortcomings in the process of vote counting and the distortion of
the true results cast doubt on the legality of the elections."

Opinion polls show Armenians are hungry for reform, but analysts say
deep divisions in the opposition scuttled its chances of capitalizing
on support for change.

According to preliminary figures released by the Central Elections
Commission Sunday, five parties crossed the five percent threshold of
votes required to enter parliament — three pro-government and two
from the opposition.

With all the votes tallied, the Republican party of Prime Minister
Serzh Sarkisian was far ahead with 32.9 percent of the vote.

Sarkisian, Kocharian’s chosen successor for president, is now the
uncontested frontrunner in a presidential election set for the end of
next year.

The pro-presidential Prosperous Armenia party of millionaire former
world arm wrestling champion Gagik Tsarukian had 14.7 percent of the
vote. It was followed by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a
member of the former ruling coalition, with 12.8 percent.

Anti-government parties trailed far behind. The Country of Law party,
led by former speaker Artur Baghdasarian, had 6.9 percent, followed
by the Heritage party of US-born former foreign minister Raffi
Hovannisian with 5.8 percent.

About 1.3 million of Armenia’s 2.3 million registered voters took
part in the vote for 131 seats in parliament.

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