27 February 2003
YEREVAN, Armenia--The dramatic turn in Armenia’s presidential election, which is heading toward a run-off on 5 March, has thrown light on a political practice that President Robert Kocharian has relied upon extensively, political observers say. This practice, characterized as “administrative resources,” refers to the use of state agencies during campaigns and elections in favor of a particular candidate favored by incumbent authority.
Armenia has been buffeted by political discontent since the preliminary election results were released 20 February. Kocharian, who fell just short of winning the 50 percent of the vote required to avoid a run-off against Stepan Demirchian, played the underdog on 26 February. Demirchian supporters say Kocharian rigged the ballot to inflate his vote totals. Amid daily demonstrations in the capital, the president and his political allies have accused the opposition of lying about his reelection campaign and of endangering the country’s stability. Kocharian has warned of possible violence if the opposition continues to stage demonstrations.
During the campaign leading up to the first round of balloting 19 February, Kocharian enjoyed many advantages. The country’s election code basically ensures that all election commissions favor the incumbent. The government directly appoints one-third of election commission members, with political parties represented in the National Assembly naming the rest. Since the majority of parties in parliament support Kocharian, analysts say, the commissions have been accordingly packed with presidential supporters. As such, the Central Election Commission (CEC), which includes many people who owe their position directly to the president, has shown an inclination to dismisses as "baseless" protests by the opposition or monitors about voting irregularities, including ballot box stuffing.
The CEC’s conduct after the unexpectedly close 19 February vote illustrates how commissions can arouse suspicion. Early on 20 February, the body announced the results of counting, broken down by hour. But this stopped at 9 a.m., when commissioners announced 18 out of 56 election districts all at once. Then, at 6 p.m., the CEC presented the preliminary results for the whole country. According to these preliminary figures, Kocharian missed winning reelection outright by less than 3,000 votes. Final results, released 25 February, gave Kocharian 49.5 percent of the vote, down from his preliminary total of 49.8 percent.
The Guardian, a London daily, quoted an unnamed foreign diplomat as saying Kocharian decided against declaring himself the winner immediately, given the fact that the opposition had generated a strong turnout. Local observers note that the CEC chief, when announcing the preliminary tallies, immediately confirmed that there would be a run-off vote 5 March. Given that Kocharian came so close to the 50 percent threshold, some observers believe that the CEC’s quick decision to order a run-off, and not hold a recount, was influenced more by political considerations than purely by ballot-box figures.
Several analysts contend that the use of “administrative resources” was evident in several other areas connected with the election. David Petrossian, an analyst with the Noyan Tapan news agency, asserts that according to official data, some 250,000 voters (out of 1.46 million who, according to official data, cast ballots) voted during the last 30 minutes of the voting period. On average, this means that over 100 people passed through the voting booth within 30 minutes in each precinct. Experts say this is technically improbable. This finding raises questions about whether citizens got to vote fairly and efficiently. Despite the questionable voting pattern, none of the official election agencies found sufficient grounds to establish a formal violation of voting procedure.
Other facts have emerged in the days following the first round of voting that suggest state officials took action designed to ensure a Kocharian victory. After the publication of the preliminary results, Demirchian and his supporters organized several rallies protesting against irregularities during voting and counting. Law enforcement authorities have arrested more than 100 protesters and have sentenced 80 of them to 15 days’ imprisonment on charges of “hooliganism.” However, all of these “hooligans” were not arrested on the spot. Some were taken into custody after the fact, in their homes. Kocharian critics emphasize that police officers appeared to know specific addresses at which to search for suspects. Demirchian supporters contend that most of those arrested were election activists, including the candidate’s proxies.
A Justice Ministry statement insisted that many of those arrested have a “criminal past.” Such a strongly worded statement--implying guilt before trial, according to some--has raised doubts about the neutrality of law enforcement and judicial bodies during the election process. Trials against alleged “hooligans” took place behind closed doors in direct violation of the country’s administrative code.
The Armenian Helsinki Association claimed that many of the defendants did not have access to legal counsel during their trials. The association in a statement released 24 February called for international sanctions against Kocharian’s administration, if it continued to attempt to manipulate the election’s outcome.
Analysts say it is impossible to predict the outcome of the second round scheduled for 5 March. Both candidates are declaring their readiness to take part in TV debates, although there is no consensus about the subjects to be discussed (Demirchian insists on discussing election process irregularities).
It seems likely that Kocharian may continue to rely heavily on "administrative resources," some analysts suggest. They add the president’s reliance on the assets of incumbency, including the ability to influence coverage of state-run mass media, may be even greater in the days leading up to 5 March, than it was during the campaign before the first round. Indeed, analysts point out that those involved in implementing “administrative resources” may fear reprisals, possibly even legal prosecution, if Demirchian wins the election. At the same time, if Kocharian prevails, opposition activists are more likely to question the legitimacy of the country’s election agencies--and the government as a whole.
by Haroutiun Khachatrian