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On 26 March 2023, local elections were held in Sisian community of Syunik region and Ani community of Shirak region.The elections covered 55 settlements. In both communities, the previous elections had taken place on 25 September 2022, however, the mandates of none of the political forces elected in the council of elders were enough to take over the position of the community head, while the council of elders did not hold elections, as a result of which, local self-government bodies were not formed.
4 political forces - instead of the former 3 - were nominated in Ani community. Civil Contract (63 candidates) and Armenian Dream (32 candidates) were nominated with the same candidates for community heads, while number one (former community head Artak Gevorgyan) and number two candidates on the Nation-Community Alliance list of candidates of the previous elections were nominated separately in the lists of alliances of Nation-Community (63 candidates) and My Strong Community (37 candidates) parties.
Only 3 parties were nominated in Sisian instead of 5 parties and alliances of 2 parties nominated during the previous elections. Civil Contract (63 candidates) party was nominated with the same community head candidate, while Citizen’s Decision social-democratic party (30 candidates), which participated in the previous elections in the composition of the Developing Community alliance of parties, was now nominated separately, and the leading candidate of the list of the Republican Party of Armenia (32 candidates) was not nominated during the elections held in previous autumn.
Temporary heads of communities were leading the list of the Civil Contract party in both communities. In Sisian, Armen Hakobjanyan was appointed as head of the community back in August 2021, while Arman Saribekyan was appointed as temporary head of Ani community after September 25 elections (in December 2022), as the elected council of elders did not choose a community head.
The Independent Observer public alliance did not conduct a long-term observation, as a result of which the alliance does not have its own information regarding political processes, as well as abuses during and prior to the campaign in the communities. Nonetheless, it should be mentioned that according to the information received from different independent sources, the staff of budget institutions has significantly changed in both communities over the last six months, and the logic of those changes repeats the practice of dismissing anyone somehow related to the former community authorities (sometimes merely kinship relations) and instead trying to recruit members of “their own team”. In other words, temporary incumbents did their best to ensure formation of administrative resources for them.
Obviously, ongoing construction activities, possession of state and community resources, subsidy programs, repair and other activities ensured, in a certain sense, a natural advantage for the ruling Civil Contract party. Moreover, in Ani community, such activities were implemented and presented for campaign purposes also during the official campaign, and using them for campaign purposes prima facie leads to the offence specified under Article 40.8 of the Code of Administrative Offences, namely, use of administrative resources for electoral or referendum campaigning.
61 polling stations were established for the elections in the two communities, and the Independent Observer alliance observed the entire elections process by 8 mobile groups.
The Precinct Electoral Commission’s morning session was observed in 15 out of 61 polling stations.
The session started in time in the observed polling stations, and only a ten-minute delay was recorded in one case. 4 members of the Commissions were late and appeared at the polling stations during the sessions before the polling stations opened. All the observed sessions were held without any incidents, functions of the commission members were determined through casting lots, no problem was identified with respect to voter authentication device printing the statement of absence of voters. A non-significant violation was recorded in 2 polling stations. In 3 of the observed polling stations, the voting booths were placed in a position that could compromise voting confidentiality, however, after the observers voiced the problem, it was corrected before the voting started. Proxies were observing the process of the commission’s session in 9 polling stations, another observer was present in only one polling station, while no mass media representative was present in any polling station.
During the voting, the observers visited 54 out of 61 polling stations; the other 7 polling stations were not observed due to difficult terrain, distance and small number of voters, but the team of observers regularly followed the broadcast from those polling stations.
The observers made observations regarding polling stations, voting rooms and working conditions of commission members, and those conclusions are summed up below.
In most of the polling stations (72,7%), the road to the polling station was assessed as difficult for voters with locomotor problems, and the entrance of polling stations was difficult to access in 81,8% cases. In 7 polling stations, the voting room was even located on the second floor of the building, and in two cases, the voting room was on the stage, which was an additional unjustified obstacle for voters with locomotor problems. All the commissions were provided with Braille alphabet templates meant to make independent voting possible for voters with bad or poor eyesight. Though the alliance does not know any case of voting with those templates, it was observed in certain polling stations that the templates had incorrect sequence of pages.
The lighting was assessed insufficient in 16,7% of voting rooms, and 11,9% of voting booths of the observed polling stations. In terms of ensuring voting confidentiality, furnishing was assessed insufficient in 4 of the observed polling stations.
In terms of organizing work, voting room furnishing was considered sufficiently comfortable in 80% of cases, and the general area was comfortable in 86% of cases. That is to say, in some cases of insufficient conditions observed, the voting room could have been better furnished, given the area. Taking into account the importance of providing decent conditions for the commission members in polling stations and those entitled to a long stay in the voting room, the temperature of the voting room and the presence of a restroom in the area was also observed. The voting room temperature was assessed insufficient in 34% of cases and inadmissible in 8% of cases. The conditions of the existing restroom were considered insufficient in 30% of cases, and there was no restroom at all in 8% of cases. This condition is particularly inadmissible since polling stations are mainly in buildings of public importance, i.e., buildings of state and community institutions.
One of the polling stations in the most deplorable situation observed in these elections was the HayPost building in Dastakert settlement /see below/.
In 94,8% cases, the commissions were willing to correct the problems voiced by observers. It should be recorded that 12,1% of the observed polling stations were not sufficiently aware of the procedures. Not all members (including presidents) had participated in the training courses organized for PEC members, while 43,7% of the commissions stated that they had not undergone any training on assisting voters with disabilities or their respective knowledge was assessed insufficient by the observers.
The proportional electoral system voting procedure is extremely simplified. The ballot number is written in large font. The voter votes only by putting the ballot in an envelope without writing anything. The clarity of this mechanism is also evidenced by nearly no ballots recognized invalid as a result of not being aware of the procedure. Throughout the elections in two communities, about 580 voters (2.7% of participants) voted with the assistance of other persons. While the list of assisting persons was held properly in the commissions’ record book in the absolute majority of the observed cases, the observers also witnessed cases when the person being assisted did all the activities in the polling station independently except for putting the ballot in the envelope, and this causes the assumption that the registered assisting person, in reality, oversees the voter’s voting. There were also cases when in response to a clarifying question of the commission members, the voters refused assistance, as a result of which, the President of the Commission did not register the person accompanying the voter for the purpose of “assisting”. The possibility of voting with another person’s assistance remains one of the ways of potential abuse. While it stems from the Electoral Code provisions that the voter himself shall invite the assisting person into the voting booth and only another voter present in the voting room can be an assisting person, often persons intending to assist accompany the voter from the start and are not voters of that polling station or simply do not participate in the voting during that period. This matter is extremely sensitive and it is necessary to find a solution which would stem from the rights of persons who really are not able to vote independently and would also not violate the right of voters who do not need assistance. The Electoral Code also establishes that a person can assist only once, while in the given situation, it is not possible to prevent assisting persons from providing that service more than once in different polling stations.
While the list of registration of proxies was not properly maintained in only 8,2% of the observed polling stations, taking into account that the lists of proxies of the party or the alliance are not published, it is difficult to assess whether proxies are those not entitled to be proxies as listed in part 3 of Article 33 of the Electoral Code. At the same time, there were rather frequent cases when there were several proxies in the area at the same time, only one of which was in the voting room. In this case, persons outside the voting room with the certificate of a proxy were neither removed from the area as unauthorized persons, nor they were proxies. 72 violations were recorded in 22 of the observed polling stations.
Most frequent ones were:
The observation mission did not record essential violations affecting the results of the elections. It should be mentioned that more common violations were repeated, namely, the ones recorded or noted over the last two years and on 15 September 2022, in particular.
There were also recorded cases causing concern over the integrity of the forces engaged in electoral processes, in particular, the conduct of proxies of the Civil Contract party.
In Vaghatin settlement of Sisian, the Civil Contract proxy held a list of names of those who appeared for voting, including about 80% of the number of those who had voted as of that moment. When the observers were trying to clarify the issue, the President of the Commission quickly, without observing any procedure, removed the proxy from the voting room.
In Vorotnavan settlement, one of the Civil Contract party candidate’s son provided the President of the Commission with three certificates of Civil Contract proxies (with no name specified on them) to give them to the proxies representing them, by which they factually involved the President of the Commission in the activities of the election headquarters. The candidate’s son also organized some voters’ transportation to the polling station.
During the short visit of observers to Shenatagh, the Civil Contract proxy met two “assisting” persons with the voters they were accompanying, while two other voters were, for unknown reasons, guided behind the polling station, only after which they headed to vote.
In addition to the above-mentioned, it should also be mentioned that in Sisian town, Civil Contract candidates, NA Civil Contract faction deputies, as well as family members of candidates were constantly present around the polling stations, which often led to crowding within the legally prohibited 50 meter-radius.
In polling station 33/1 of Maralik in Ani community, the Civil Contract proxy took a photo of the signed pages of the electoral lists, the President of the Commission hindered the observers’ work by giving the proxy an opportunity to delete the photos from his phone.
At various times during the day, a situation was observed in 33/3 polling station in Maralik, when the voter showed the Civil Contract proxy standing next to the voting booth which ballot he/she was putting into the envelope.
In the same polling station, before the observers voiced the issue, the Civil Contract proxy undertook the Commission’s function of explaining the voting procedure.
In Isahakyan settlement of the same community, the Civil Contract proxy held another list, which the President of the Commission tore after the observers noticed the problem.
In two polling stations, the Civil Contract proxies quarreled with the “Haykakan zham” media representatives.
Civil Consciousness NGO observers’ conduct during the observation mission is noteworthy. These observers were “cooperating” with and expressed their approval for competing forces participating in the elections, and sometimes unintentionally presented themselves as party-affiliated: in two cases, the observers presented themselves as “Republican”-affiliated, and in one case they showed the RPA party ticket instead of the certificate. Nonetheless, according to the literal reading of the Electoral Code, the fact that observers are a member of a party is not a violation of the law, and it is only related to the rules of conduct of the observation mission and impartiality of that mission’s observations.
Counting and summarization of votes
Summarization of voting results was observed in 13 polling stations. Proxies of competing political forces were also present in all those polling stations. The sessions were organized without any significant violations, with little deviations from the procedure. It should be mentioned that only the commission members participated in the counting, no policeman was present in the voting room (in one case, a policeman present in the room was removed after the Independent Observer voiced it), the commissions manifested a uniform approach to invalid ballots. In one case, one of the candidate’s right to be in the voting room was violated on the false grounds that a second candidate from the same party was present.
A tense situation was created in Angeghakot settlement of Sisian community between the settlement resident and a representative of 168.am media, which was made possible only as a result of non-professional working style of policemen. The entrance of the voting room (which was separated by a glass wall) was closed, while unknown persons were regularly entering the hall through the entrance uncontrolled by policemen for unknown reasons. When the journalist directed the camera at those persons, one of them aggressively tried to forbid videorecording, hitting the glass and provoking a quarrel. The policemen invited by the President of the Commission removed the unknown person, and the problem did not develop further.
These elections were organized by the territorial electoral commissions formed in Autumn 2022. According to the regulations that entered into force in 2023, videorecording and broadcasting is also done from territorial electoral commissions. The Independent Observer followed the process of bringing the voting protocols from polling stations in two TECs and recorded the following situation:
No candidate claimed recalculation in any polling station within the established time frame. The 34th TEC, at their own initiative, recalculated the results of 4 polling stations in Sisian. 33rd and 34th TECs did recalculation of three random polling stations each, in a manner prescribed by law. Among the identified exclusively procedural non-significant violations the following stands out: in Sisian 34/5 polling station, 3 out of 8 invalid ballots were recognized valid. 3 ballots were somewhat torn, which made it possible to recognize them valid, while 5 were completely torn. Noteworthy, all those ballots were those of the Civil Contract party, which can indicate either an attempt at an agreed-upon political “boycott” or an inappropriate influence and a consequence of resisting that influence.
During the elections of 26 March 2023, no violations were recorded that could influence the results. According to the preliminary results of voting, all the forces nominated in the two communities received mandates. In both communities, the Civil Contract party received the majority of votes and the leading candidate of the list became head of the community by virtue of law. Participation of voters in Sisian in September 2022 and March 2023 nearly does not differ, while in Ani, 2000 more voters participated in March 2023. The number of votes in favor of Civil Contract also increased by the same number as compared to the previous elections. On the voting day, no facts were recorded in terms of illegal interference to ensure participation.
However, during the pre-election phase, as well as on the voting day, the Civil Contract party, which was factually forming the authority in the communities, had evident initial advantage over other political forces and took measures aimed at maintaining those advantages, the total sum of which can be characterized as abuse of administrative resources, directing of voters and inappropriate influence. Alongside, the other forces used their economic resources. The pre-election phase should be subjected to more effective regulations to have legal solutions or prevent the identified problems and establish an effective liability based on them.
Taking into account that in the two observed communities the current elections were organized as the council of elders did not choose the head of the community during the previous elections, the possibility of the second phase in local elections should be discussed, which would exclude the potential abuse of the temporary head of the community giving initial advantage to the ruling force.
Using the powers for appointing temporary community heads and changing personnel in discretionary positions, using Government-provided subvention programs by the candidate holding a temporary position for campaigning purposes, organizing transportation of voters, abusing the institute of assisting voters, the possibility of violating the principle of voting confidentiality or the possible control of the voting process are the non-political tools which undermine the formation of public trust in the local government system and hinder the formation of a free and fair electoral culture.
Despite establishment of standards for polling stations and TEC oversight, polling stations were mainly in a deplorable situation and provided non-decent conditions both for voters and those implementing electoral administration.
It is clear that the mechanism of registration of proxies and assisting persons need additional regulation.
The Independent Observer welcomes the use of cameras in polling stations and locations of territorial electoral commissions. Nonetheless, it should be mentioned that the broadcasts did not mention the polling stations՛ numbers, and time, as specified by legislation.
“Independent Observer” mission represented by
∼ Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly-Vanadzor
∼ “Union of Informed Citizens”
The observation mission is implemented with the financial support of Prague Civil Society Centre and European Endowment for Democracy in the frame of the project “Independent Observer - local elections 2022”.
Responsibility for the contents of this publication lies with the Independent Observer public alliance and they do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding organization.