The European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE) hosted a post-election roundtable during which heads of domestic and international election observation missions, as well as international experts and foreign dignitaries discussed conclusions from their election monitoring and formulated recommendations for the future. These elections were notable not just for Armenia, but also in an international context. OSCE ODIHR, OSCE PA, and the PACE were able to jointly conduct their first full observation mission since the COVID-19 outbreak.
From the outset, all observers noted the well conducted and fair electoral process. One could see that Armenia is building on previous good electoral practice established during the milestone 2018 elections, which leaves experts hopeful that democratic backsliding in Armenia becomes harder as Armenians are getting used to the good quality of their elections. These elections were also the most competitive, unpredictable, and expensive elections with 25 political forces running in the race. Some experts have called these elections “boring”, in the sense that there were no significant violations or procedural errors.
The true winner of the elections were the Armenian voters, claimed one observer, as they voted freely and overwhelmingly for a continuation of democratic reforms. Despite the tense environment surrounding this election and the high level of political polarization which was being stirred up by candidates, voting day remained peaceful. Voters were therefore not swayed by the rhetoric and carried out their civic duty.
Official voter turnout was around 49%, which largely correlated with the parallel vote tabulation (PVT) carried out by the independent Akanates (Eyewitness) citizen observation mission. Due to the electoral threshold of 5% for political parties and 7% for alliances, approx. 20% of votes were “lost” and will not be represented in the parliament. There was also a high number of undecided voters up until Election Day. One observer stated that this turnout is a testament to how much voters were engaged to participate in these elections. During the 2018 election voters were gripped by euphoria from the revolution and were enthusiastic to participate in the elections, and here voter turnout was around 48%. The situation for these elections was entirely different. In a post-war and pandemic situation bringing with it many concerns for voters, one could therefore interpret the turnout as showing people’s strong vote for democracy as a means to resolve the problems the country is currently facing. In the context of the highly polarized environment in Armenia, such a clear result will help ensure a smoother post-election transition. Experts were worried that if the race had ended in a close result, some political forces could have taken to the streets or used more extreme methods to challenge the result.
International support for these and previous elections in Armenia is also notable. Without their support, the Armenian voter’s secrecy of the vote could not have been ensured – technical assistance and funding for equipment such as scanners for ID cards and video cameras in polling stations were provided by the US, UNDP, and the EU. Funding for domestic citizen election observation was also again ensured by the international donors.
Despite these many positive trends, observers highlighted several violations identified during the election campaign and Election Day. The most notable violations were the directing of voters in polling stations and voter bribery via proxies of candidates and private foundations affiliated with certain political forces. According to some observers, the majority of recorded violations were conducted by the Armenia Alliance. All preliminary reports by international and domestic election observation missions presenting their findings will be listed below. In addition to the identified violations, several general trends and concerns were raised by experts:
Organization of the election & election management bodies (EMBs)
These elections were organized in a very short period of time and observers were concerned whether this would have an impact on the Central Election Commission (CEC)’s ability to organize these elections efficiently. In general, observers positively assess the work of the CEC. Despite the challenging election, approx. 95% of commission members took part in trainings by the CEC, conducted in cooperation with IFES, which is the highest number of trained PEC members achieved ahead of an election in Armenia. The CEC further published information material for voters on how to vote, anti-COVID-provisions, and training materials for commission members and staff at polling stations. However, some observers noted that there is still a lack of knowledge among members of EMBs regarding the electoral process. This can be attributed to the fact that there is a high number of inexperienced new members in election commissions.
Accessibility of polling stations also remains to be an issue – observers stated that according to their monitoring, 64% of polling stations were not accessible to persons with mobility issues.
Polarization in society
During the election campaign there was a very polarized political debate concentrating around the main political contenders. Women contending in the elections were sidelined, and the debate was marked by personal attacks and calls for political vendettas. Experts stated that overcoming this polarization would be one of the greatest challenges for the future and an important task for the new government, which must build bridges between political forces, including those that did not enter parliament. The voices of women in political discourse must also be amplified in the future, which international commentators stated would become a priority in their work going forward.
Improving anticorruption measures
Experts raised concerns over the economic ties of some contenders. There are some anticorruption measures in place, such as the Corruption Prevention Commission which vets the background of public officials and their declaration assets. But improvements in the system could be made and political actors or investigative journalists must be supported in investigating these ties further. One expert noted that judicial reform must also be brought forward to improve this situation. It was also noted that candidates with identified criminal activities were allowed to still run in this election.
Independence of the judiciary
Concerns were raised over the independence of the judiciary and the impact this may have on the quality of elections. Controversial decisions were made during the election campaign by the Administrative Court concerning the use of advertising and campaign materials by certain candidates, and observers noted that the Constitutional Court has a history of biased or inconsistent decisions. Judicial reform is therefore key to ensuring good quality democratic elections in Armenia.
Disinformation and voter manipulation
Just before the Election Day, an opinion poll was released by an organization using the logo of Gallup, the globally renowned and respected polling agency, giving the impression that they were affiliated in some way to Gallup when in fact this was not the case, as confirmed by a statement from Gallup. The poll indicated that it was an incredibly tight race and that a second round of elections might be likely, which other polls did not reflect. Observers raised concerns over such polls ahead of Election Day stating that these could manipulate voters and may influence the election. Media added fuel to the fire and reported extensively on this misleading poll. International experts noted good practice in other countries which could be applied to Armenia, where the conduct of polling during an election period is regulated by the Electoral Code.
Observers noted that there were intense disinformation campaigns in the media and spreading of false information. More needs to be done in regard to media competencies and responsibility to prevent this in the future.
Next steps after the elections
The voters’ choice is fairly clear. The Armenia Alliance is challenging the election results in the courts, but this is in itself a positive sign in that the challenge is being done through the legally available route rather than on the streets.
Observers call on the international community to continue their support and engagement in Armenia’s reform process to make sure that the government now follows up on its promises. Civil society must be more critical than it has been after the revolution and in the post-war situation, but in such a way as to not exacerbate tensions or the difficult political situation in Armenia. Work on electoral reforms must continue now, even after an electoral cycle has ended to allow the CEC to implement reforms effectively and in time before the next election period begins.
Specific recommendations by observers included:
Further recommendations will be formulated in the final observation mission reports.
Preliminary reports of domestic and international election observation missions: