At the polls

Monitoring the Armenian Parliamentary Elections: Through the Prism of a Diasporan


By Judith Saryan
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN and BOSTON — Twenty-five years after Armenia became independent from the former Soviet Union, the country still struggles with economic stagnation, political corruption, and high levels of poverty. I wanted to learn firsthand why the political system in Armenia does not work. I didn’t know if, as a member of the Armenian diaspora, I would be welcome. The local Armenians might well see me as an interloper, someone who didn’t understand the realities of life in Armenia. Even though my family came from Western Armenia, now Turkey, I felt a strong connection with this surviving piece of the homeland.

Several of my friends in Boston tried to dissuade me from my decision. It would not be safe, they argued, and it would not make a difference. Safety was a concern for me, but it would be much safer for me, to monitor the elections than for someone from Armenia. The Armenian government did not have leverage over me or my family. If something happened to me, the news media might report on it. The locals, on the other hand, took risks to vote their conscience. I had heard stories about intimidation in the workplace and from family members. Social networks are crucial in Armenia.

I arrived in Yerevan on March 29, four days ahead of the elections, with little idea what to expect other than a training session offered by Citizen Observer, an organization created in 2013 by local NGOs that encourage democracy building in Armenia. I was surprised to find out that I would need to arrive at least an hour before polls opened at 8 am and stay until the polls closed and ballots were counted. The whole process could last 25 hours.

I attended the training session, which condensed a lot of technical information in a short period of time. The trainer clearly understood the rules, but had a challenging time explaining the details because of all of the permutations. Fortunately, I met a young woman from Fresno, California, who lived in Armenia and had participated as an election observer in the past five elections. She filled me in on the most important things to watch for: ballot stuffing and dishonest officials. She suggested bringing at least three bananas for quick energy. We were told not to eat any food offered to us.

Early on Sunday morning April 2, I caught a taxi to my polling station at the Hagop Oshagan School in a relatively nice neighborhood of Yerevan. I introduced myself to the various members of the local election committee. I was greeted enthusiastically by a woman who had been an observer in prior elections. Most of the other committee members eyed me with curiosity and suspicion. My local counterpart citizen observer, a young man originally from the US, had lived in Armenia for about nine  years. One unusual feature of the process was the inclusion of individuals from the various political parties who participated as proxy observers. Each party was allowed to have two proxies per precinct, and they were supposed to observe and not interfere with the voters. Even before the voters arrived, the room was crowded.

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I was the outsider in the group, the one who looked American. My shoes gave me away. I wore my very comfortable neon running shoes. The women in Armenia did not wear casual sneakers or running shoes to the polls. They dressed up for the occasion, some of them in their best outfits. I marveled at the heels worn by a few of the committee members.

Voters walked in right after the polls opened at 8 a.m. There was a steady stream of people, many of whom were elderly, for the first four hours. I did not need to worry that they would view me askance. Most of the people were too preoccupied by the complicated new voting process to notice me or my running shoes. Voters had to show their ids and provide their fingerprints. This was the first election that had electronic voter identification, which was designed to prevent people from voting multiple times and stuffing the ballot box. The voters were given nine ballots for the nine different parties. They had to choose one party and discard the other eight. They also had the right to vote for a specific parliamentarian on the ballot. I could see that many of the elderly voters were confused.

While most of the proxies kept a low profile including the proxy for the incumbent Republican Party, the proxy for the Tsaroukian party, who was about thirty-five years old with a big paunch, greeted many of the elderly with a hug and chatted with them as they deciphered their ballots. I tried to listen to what he said. Early in the day he looked at me and asked, “Normal-eh?” which is a common expression in Armeno-English which means what it sounds like. “Is everything normal?” It was more of a challenge than a question. This man frequently answered his mobile phone and then left the room. My local counterpart grew suspicious.

I complained to the president of the election committee that the proxy for the Tsaroukian Party stood too close to the three voting booths, which were little more than tall boxes providing a modicum of privacy. The president told me that he was a local, an “Akhper” – literally meaning a brother, and everyone knew him, and that there was no harm in it. Could he help it if everyone wanted to talk with him? I waited patiently and then took a photo of the proxy crowding one of the elderly voters in the booth. I told the president that I would report the infraction to Transparency International.

At one point, the Tsaroukian proxy sidled up to me and called me beautiful. I moved away from him as fast as I could.

The proxies for the incumbent Republican Party and for the Dashnakstutiun [Armenian Revolutionary Federation], allied with the Republicans, were surprisingly low key. They observed the activities in the polling place without interacting much with the voters or the committee. The two main opposition proxies represented the Yelq Bloc, which was recently formed from three other parties, and the Congress Party.

The only party proxy who challenged the proceedings was the young man from Yelq, a new party with leaders who appealed to the younger, more urban voters. The Yelq proxy demanded that the electoral rules be assiduously followed. He got into heated arguments with the president of the precinct whom he addressed politely, and repeatedly, by first name.

The Yelq proxy later told me that he couldn’t write about his election experience because he could lose his job, and only the outside observers could write without personal risk.

Many younger voters arrived in the afternoon. They seemed more animated and aware of the voting process. The Tsaroukian proxy was much less interested in these voters.

The voting slowed down after 6 p.m. At 7 p.m., several new proxies came in, including two men wearing sunglasses, and replaced some of the original proxies. At exactly 8 pm, the polls closed. The police officers who had stayed in the background during the voting locked the front doors of the school so that no one could walk in or out without special approval. The precinct president prepared for the vote count. The participants became more attentive, and the Yelq proxy more challenging.

After the unused ballots were tossed away, the president opened the hamper with the votes. According to the electronic tally, 967 votes were cast. Everyone sat around the president as he pulled out the ballots on top and started to read them. He displayed each ballot after he read it. The proxies made tallies.

In the first group of votes read out loud by the president, many of the ballots were cast for the Republican and the Tsaroukian parties, but I was surprised at the number of ballots cast for the Yelq Bloc. After a couple hundred ballots were read, Yelq was in second place, slightly trailing the Republican Party. The Tsaroukian party was third. The Yelq proxy smiled for the first time and became less combative, and the Republican proxies who initially had insolent swaggers, looked nervous.

About halfway through the ballot box, the voting results shifted dramatically. Yelq received fewer votes in this batch. The early morning voters, many of whom were elderly, had cast their ballots for the Republican and Tsaroukian parties. I later heard from several sources that these two parties had handed out most of the bribes, reportedly $20 per vote, twice the going rate in prior elections.

At the end of the count, the Republican Party came in first with 359 votes, Tsaroukian garnered 260 votes, and Yelq came in third with 169 votes. The other six parties received about 170 votes total. Some of the ballots were disqualified because of stray marks on them. The Yelq proxy seemed pleased with the results because Yelq would get enough votes to have representation in Parliament.

It was past 11 p.m., and the president still had to count the votes for the Parliamentarians. I’d lost steam by then, and I struggled to stay awake. My feet were fine because of my trusty neon running shoes, but my sore back almost did me in. Luckily during the count, I managed to snag a chair with a bit of cushion which saved me. Most of the votes for the Republican and the Tsaroukian Parliamentarians went to only two people. They seemed to be the favorites in the precinct, by choice or, perhaps, by bribe.

Everyone looked haggard towards the end. The president couldn’t finish the count. He stood up from the table, and the secretary took over. The secretary counted very slowly. He willingly gave up the right to count to two of the women on the committee. The women were much better at counting than the men.

At 1:30 a.m., the count was almost finished. I had survived the 19-hour marathon. I called for my taxi cab.

I expected the driver to be crabby at this early hour. On the contrary, he was quite talkative and friendly. He seemed to know why I was at the polling station. Maybe he noticed my running shoes.

(Judith Saryan is a project manager at the Armenian International Women’s Association with extensive experience in the world of finance. She is a graduate of Wellesley College.)

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