Strasbourg, 29 November 1999

CG/BUR (6) 88

Report by the CLRAE observer delegation on the local elections held in Armenia on 24 October 1999

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INTRODUCTION

At the invitation of the government of the Republic of Armenia, a delegation from the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe (CLRAE) went to Armenia from 20 to 27 October 1999 to observe the local elections on 24 October 1999.

The list of delegation members appears in Appendix 1 to this report.

This was a follow-up visit to that of the delegation which observed the two rounds of the first local elections in Armenia, which were held on 10 and 24 November 1996. According to the report presented by Ms Olga BENNETT, Ireland (CG/BUR (3) 73, approved by the Congress on 21 January 1997), the 1996 elections had been, on the whole, free and fair but serious anomalies had been reported in several places.

As the Republic of Armenia's application for membership of the Council of Europe is still under examination, it was appropriate to check the progress that had been made in holding elections and, in particular, the public authorities' capacity to organise these complex operations. An assessment also had to be made of the effect of these elections on the functioning of decentralised local government.

1. PROGRAMME OF THE DELEGATION'S VISIT

The organisation of the delegation's work and the meetings with the various authorities were satisfactory, thanks to the co-operation of the Ministry of Territorial Administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which helped to prepare the visit and provided assistance throughout.

The full programme of the visit is given in Appendix 2.

The delegation attended an information meeting on the organisation of the elections with the chair of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) and also met one of the vice-presidents and various members of the National Assembly, representatives of political parties with groups in Parliament, leaders of the Armenian Association of Mayors, a number of NGOs working in Armenia and the ambassadors or embassy officials of several Council of Europe member countries.

The discussions that took place on the day before the elections with the governors/prefects (Marzpet) and the chairs of the regional electoral commissions gave delegates a more concrete picture of preparations for the elections and the political and economic situation in the regions visited.

On polling day, the delegation split into four groups of two observers and one group of three. These groups visited a total of 88 polling stations in seven regions (Marzes): Yerevan, Ararat, Armavir, Aragatzotn, Kotayk, Vayots Dzor and Gegharkunik. They were present throughout the vote-counting procedure in five polling stations in different towns.

On the day after the elections, an exchange of views was held with a representative of the embassy of the United States of America, whom we had already met along with representatives of other embassies on 22 October. The US embassy had obtained accreditation for three groups of two observers, whose conclusions concur with those of the CLRAE delegation.

At a press conference held on the Tuesday following the elections, the press statement in Appendix 3 was issued and presented.

During an in-depth discussion with Mr Khosrov ARUTIUNYAN, Minister of Territorial Administration, the delegation conveyed its observations to him and was able to obtain clarification on the present situation and future prospects, particularly in the context of the examination of Armenia's application for membership of the Council of Europe.

During its visit, the delegation therefore gathered a great deal of high-quality information on the background and arrangements for these elections. In carrying out its main task of checking that the election process was properly and fairly conducted, the delegation did not encounter any obstacles or feel that anything had been hidden from it. The observers were greeted with courtesy and respect wherever they went. The officials at the polling stations they visited gave them all due attention and co-operation.

2. THE LOCAL ELECTION SYSTEM

2.1 The purpose of the elections and the legal framework

Most of the decentralised local institutions are communities. Article 105 of the constitution provides for local self-government in the communities. The constitution gives the city of Yerevan special status as a region whose mayor is appointed or removed from office by the President of the Republic on the recommendation of the Prime Minister (Article 108); this article specifies that local self-government in Yerevan shall be instituted through the communities, and it was in these communities that elections were held.

The status of the communities is set out in the constitution (Chapter 7, Articles 104 to 110) and especially in the local administration law of 22 July 1996.

With 930 communities, fragmentation is a feature of the administrative map of the country. However, more than ¾ of the population live in 22 towns, the majority in Yerevan. This phenomenon reflects cultural and geographic realities, especially in the mountain regions, which can be accepted as legitimate. The resulting problems are not principally of an electoral nature. The difficulties lie in finding people in some of the villages who are sufficiently educated and willing to hold public office, or even in finding enough of them to stand for election, and in organising the financing of budgets through taxation or transfers.

According to Article 105, referred to above, community (district) councils with between 5 and 15 members and a community leader (mayor) are elected for three years. At the previous local elections, they were appointed under the local government election legislation of 10 June 1996. The 52 sections of the law lay down a number of rules governing general electoral law.

The Electoral Code of the Republic of Armenia, adopted by the National Assembly on 5 February 1999 and promulgated by the President of the Republic on 17 February is the new reference text. It unquestionably clarifies the legislation. Its 41 articles contain provisions of a general nature which apply to all elections, plus special provisions concerning the election of the President of the Republic, the National Assembly and local authorities (Articles 120 to 138).

This report does not cover the whole of the electoral regime, only those provisions which deserve special attention, either because of their unusual features or because of the problems they raise.

2.2 The right to vote

All Armenian citizens aged 18 and over are entitled to vote. A passport was systematically asked for as proof of citizenship, and it was observed in a number of polling stations that failure to produce one led to permission to vote being refused.

The application of this rule led to special difficulties as regards refugees.

There are over 300 000 refugees in Armenia, according to local sources, most of them Armenians from villages within the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan, particularly in the area between the Armenian frontier and that of the Upper Karabagh region. Most of them arrived between 1988 and 1992. According to our information, some of them had been able to vote in political elections despite not having Armenian nationality.

The wording of the new electoral code specifically denies any person who does not have Armenian nationality the right to vote. However, on 16 October 1999 the Constitutional Court of Armenia decided that, although refugees were not entitled to vote in parliamentary or presidential elections, they did have the right to vote in local elections.

Faced with the complications arising from this decision, in particular regarding the updating of the electoral rolls shortly before polling day (24 October), the President of the Republic decided, by decree of 18 October, that local elections would be postponed in all communities where the number of refugees exceeded 50% of the population, pending legislation to decide on the election arrangements and in order to give the administration time to take the necessary measures to organise them.

Soundings indicated to the delegation that the refugees were indeed concentrated in a number of communities which had often previously been inhabited by Azeris, who had themselves emigrated.

According to the chair of the Central Electoral Commission, elections were not held in 81 communities because more than 50% of the inhabitants were refugees. This figure represents slightly less than 9% of the 930 communities in Armenia.

That the elections were postponed is of course not entirely satisfactory. However, it would not have been a better solution to organise them in a hurry when the electoral rolls were not ready, the deadlines for registering candidates had passed and, more often than not, there was no sound administrative structure to organise the elections.

It is unlikely that the decisions taken with regard to refugees had any significant effect on the results of the elections, even in those communities where there are small minority groups who would theoretically have been entitled to vote.

Another category of persons, members of the armed forces, caused problems at the previous elections. It had been frequently noted that they came to vote in groups led by their officers. Voting in barracks had been possible under certain conditions, but this had been surrounded by suspicions of electoral manoeuvring.

The principle applied to the 1999 elections was a simple one: members of the armed forces were able to vote in whichever town or village they were registered on the electoral rolls, which for most of those who were doing their national service meant where their families lived. As there is a rule that national service has to be completed more than 50 kilometres away from the conscript's place of residence, many conscripts were a long way from the polling station where they were entitled to vote, though they were able to apply for leave and a free ticket to travel there. The observers only saw a small number in uniform at the polling stations and it would appear that their turnout was low.

Members of the armed forces who did vote sometimes encountered difficulties, assuming they could prove their entitlement to vote by producing their military identity cards, which were refused by polling station officials who asked to see their passports. We did see one case where polling station officials gave way to an outraged officer, but in other cases soldiers had to return home and come back with their passports. Such incidents were scarce and had no special impact on the election results.

2.3 The electoral commissions

There are three levels of electoral commissions: the Central Electoral Commission, one Regional Electoral Commission for each region/province and a Local Electoral Commission for each polling station. These have received support under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) whose national co-ordinator, Mr Carlos A. GUERRERO, the delegation met. Its work appears to be having a positive effect. It has contributed to designing a national computerised system for drawing up electoral rolls and has held training seminars for members of the electoral commissions, which may partly explain why, as all the members of the delegation reported, the polling stations were well run.

The main question as regards the electoral commissions is over their composition. They are made up of 13 persons: three civil servants appointed by the government and ten other members representing the ten political parties which obtained the best results at the previous general election.

Some of the people the delegation met pointed out that it would be preferable for these commissions to be made up exclusively of civil servants and not to appear to be in the hands of politicians. However, it was also pointed out that given the weakness of the senior civil service in Armenia and its dependence on political power, it could not be expected to show the same impartiality as the civil services of the older democracies. Consequently, the unweighted presence of political parties, and the fact that they monitored each other, waere probably sufficient guarantees of impartiality. The system was broadly accepted by all concerned and there was probably nothing to be gained from calling it into question in the short term.

Representatives of the candidates were present and took a close interest at almost all the polling stations. They were all questioned by the observers, but none of them had any particular complaints or criticisms to make.

2.4 Organisation of polling stations and voting procedure

The electoral rolls were posted at the entrance to polling stations. They sometimes bore handwritten additions as a result of court decisions on the inclusion of persons who had not been on the original list. Although there is still rather a large number of typing errors and mistakes, which may have led to some people whose identity papers did not exactly match the information given on the electoral rolls being refused the right to vote, there did seem to have been a marked improvement compared to past, even recent elections.

The observers noted that the organisation of elections was gradually improving, particularly as regards the way in which the electoral rolls were kept and the supervision by the electoral commissions. They hope that citizens will slowly regain confidence, which should make it possible to overcome the relative apathy felt towards elections and lead to higher turnout rates.

The members of the delegation noticed that a real effort had gone into the organisation of the polling stations: voters were greeted and clearly directed and ballpoint pens were available in the polling booths. Couples voting together were the exception and a polling station official generally made sure that voters entered the booths alone. Despite the meagre resources the communities had received for the elections, the minimum facilities were provided everywhere.

The only irregularity reported with some frequency was the presence of police officers in polling stations, which is, in principle, forbidden except when they have gone there to vote. Sometimes, it is true, the police station was close to the polling station. This presence, which was actually rather good-natured, was more a matter of habit than any attempt to exert pressure: it was in any case difficult to see how pressure could have been exerted or to what end. Similarly, the presence of some people who had already voted and should have left immediately was in no way disturbing. Near the polling stations there were generally only small, quiet groups of people and no sign of tension.

3. THE LOCAL ELECTIONS CANDIDATURES AND CAMPAIGN

3.1 The system for candidatures

The system is governed by Article 123 et seq. of the Electoral Code. Local elections candidates must have lived in the community where they wish to stand for at least one year and must be at least 25 years of age in order to stand for the position of community leader (mayor) and at least 21 to contest a seat on the community council.

Applications are made to the regional electoral commission. In addition to general information on their civil status, candidates must supply the receipts for their deposits, proof that they have had Armenian nationality for at least one year, proof that they have been on the electoral roll of the community in which they intend to stand for at least one year and declarations in respect of their private property and family income.

Under Article 123, candidates must pay a deposit. In communities of under 5 000 voters, the deposit is fifty times the minimum wage for candidates for the position of community leader and ten times the minimum wage for candidates for a seat on the community council. In communities of over 5 000 voters, the deposits are 100 and 20 times the minimum wage respectively. Deposits are returned to candidates who have polled more than 5% of the votes.

The delegation was told that this measure was intended to deter frivolous candidates. However, the delegates found these amounts high, especially in rural areas, and likely to limit the number of candidates unduly. They may partly explain the low number of candidates for positions on community councils which, in many communities, was not even equal to the number of seats to be filled. They also create a risk that candidates may be dependent on persons or bodies able to lend or give them the required sums.

Candidates must find the resources they need themselves, as they are not given any public funding. They may set up “campaign funds” to which contributions can be made subject to the conditions set out in Article 128 of the Electoral Code and explained in detail in Article 25. This article provides that the banks at which accounts are opened to receive such funds must regularly inform the electoral commissions of the movements recorded; various ways of monitoring the contributions received and electoral spending have been laid down. There is a limit to the amount that can be received in contributions and any surplus must be paid over to the budget (Articles 128.1 and 2, and 25.4). It is not known whether these rules are actually applied.

Most of the people the delegation spoke to emphasised the independence of the vast majority of candidates for the positions of community leader and community councillor. In their opinion, this meant that candidates did not claim any party allegiance, that they had not been put forward by political parties following an internal competition and that their commitment was purely the result of personal choice. However, after the event, many of them were found to have obtained the support of a party. For example, it emerged from discussions with representatives of the political parties in the National Assembly that the Republican Party had supported 550 candidates for the position of community leader.

The delegation observed that in a great many communities there had only been one candidate for the position of community leader and that the number of candidates for seats on the community council had been equal to, or even lower than, the number of seats to be filled. The reasons for this are probably connected with factors peculiar to local elections. The office of community councillor does not seem very attractive, partly because councillors have little real power and partly because of the conditions in which the duties are carried out. The organisation of local society, dominated by family groups, also probably leads many people to feel that they have little chance of success, which discourages them from trying.

3.2 The election campaign

The observers noted that the campaign had been very low-key: only a few posters were to be seen in Yerevan and the large towns and none at all in some of the villages. These elections therefore generated only limited interest among the population. Various explanations were put forward: the fact that they had taken place not long after the National Assembly elections in May; the meagre resources available to local authorities, which severely limit the power stakes at local level.

The material conditions of the campaign appeared uneven. In some towns, meetings had been held at which all the candidates had been present; more often, the candidates held separate meetings. A number of candidates, some of them independent and others belonging to a political party, had campaign offices, posters and the support of active campaigners.

In fact, only candidates for the position of community leader organised campaigns. The electoral system for community councillors is not conducive to the presentation of programmes or to debates on them.

The low political profile of many candidates, the lack of party political interest and the very down-to-earth nature of the population's needs (water supply, roads, schools) were the reasons most often put forward to minimise the partisan aspect of these elections.

However, during talks with the representatives of the political groups in the National Assembly, it emerged that most of the candidates for the position of community leader had the support of a political group and that the main parties followed this aspect of the election results closely. Moreover, the number of community leaders who were elected to the National Assembly in the spring of 1999 shows that the frontier between local and national political circles is easy to cross.

In the several dozen communities where early local elections had been held and, for this reason, community leaders were not elected on 24 October, turnout was well below average, sometimes only barely reaching 20%.

4. THE GENERAL RUNNING OF THE ELECTIONS

4.1 Partial renewal only

One feature of these elections was the fact that they did not result in really widespread renewal. Out of 930 communities, the council was elected in only 737 and the community leader in only 730 (source: CEC).

There are two main reasons for this. First, the elections were postponed in 81 communities where the population consists mainly of refugees. Second, in a number of communities, community leader and/or community council elections had already been held since the November 1996 general election, in most cases because the community leader had resigned or because he or she had been elected to the National Assembly, leaving the position vacant. As, according to law, community leaders and councils are elected for three years, new elections are held three years after a by-election, not at the same time as the other local elections.

This lack of synchrony is a pity: it weakens the debate on local affairs as the whole of the population is not involved at the same time. It leads to a lack of interest in communities where the community leader is not up for re-election. The increase in the number of by-elections creates extra costs and complications which would be better avoided. As time goes by, more and more communities, for one reason or another, will hold local elections at different times, with the result that the very idea of general elections will ultimately lose all meaning.

Admittedly, this does not go against any fundamental principle, but once the election of the community leader is out of phase with council elections, the situation thus created may go on indefinitely. It would therefore be preferable to decide that in the event of a by-election, the councillors and leaders elected would only remain in office until the next elections are held in all the communities for all positions.

4.2 The voting procedure

The voting procedure is as follows. The council comprises 5, 10 or 15 members depending on the size of the community. In the two last cases, the community is divided into two or three sectors. At each polling station the votes are therefore never called upon to elect more than five councillors. The ballot slip bears the names of all the candidates standing in the sector. As mentioned above, there were sometimes fewer than five candidates. There were sometimes more than five, but only very rarely more than ten. Voters can only vote for one candidate. The five candidates polling the largest numbers of votes are declared elected.

This mechanism means that no single candidate ever obtains a high percentage of the poll, and the last candidate elected may only have obtained a very few votes. There are several drawbacks to the system, the result of a compromise reached in the National Assembly. It does not encourage groups of candidates belonging to the same political party to stand, as the votes of their supporters would be diluted to the point where none of them would obtain enough votes to be elected. Nor does it encourage parties to form coalitions around a common programme. Candidates stand much more chance of being elected by relying on their personal reputation or their family connections, which are particularly important factors. The major drawback to local self-government is this juxtaposition of candidatures, the fragmentation of the vote and the lack of any incentive to constitute groups presenting well-constructed programmes that have been properly discussed. Conversations with candidates often showed how feeble their projects were.

The voting procedure is highly formalised. A notice with colour pictures explaining the procedure to voters is displayed at the entrance to every polling station.

Although the route taken by voters through the polling station is the same as in polling stations everywhere, one special feature, to be found in other countries of the former Soviet Union, is worth mentioning: the ballot slips are stamped. The special rubber stamps are sent to the polling stations by the governors' (prefects') departments in sealed envelopes, which may only be opened on the morning of the elections in the presence of the members of the local electoral commission. The stamps must be brand-new as proof that they have not been used to “prepare” any ballot slips beforehand. However, in numerous polling stations the stamps were found to have been used already, which caused delays of up to ¾ hour in opening the stations for voting. The explanation was quite simply that no money had been available to make new stamps and the governors' departments had sent out stamps already used on previous occasions. Each polling station therefore opted for what it considered the most suitable solution, such as using a different coloured ink. These material difficulties gave rise to some irritation but did not otherwise perturb the voting.

5. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

The CLRAE delegation found no serious irregularities such as to cast doubt on the fairness of the ballot held on 24 October 1999 to elect community leaders and community councillors. In its press release, it concluded that the elections had been free and fair.

However, its close scrutiny of the elections did prompt it to make a few comments, confined to the elections themselves, which it intends to submit to the Armenian authorities in order to help them in their efforts to set up more democratic and more effective local institutions.

5.1 One item on the official agenda is the introduction of legislation setting out the rules governing refugees' participation in local elections and enabling those elections which have not taken place to be held within a suitable period of time.

5.2 Solutions to make it easier for members of the armed forces to vote are more difficult to find. The current rule is simple, but does not encourage participation. Voting in national elections in the community in which soldiers are posted is not without risk, and would create an imbalance in the results of local elections in garrison towns relative to the permanent population.

5.3 The general regime for local elections does not infringe any specific principle of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, but does not seem conducive to the establishment of strong community authorities capable of devising and carrying out local development programmes. In this regard, it does not encourage growth of the sound local and regional government desired by the Charter.

The three-year frequency for local elections provided for in the constitution (Article 105) is not a wise choice. It leads to an increase in the number of elections without any real benefit to democracy, as it is impossible to design projects, proceed with the relevant technical studies, find funding and carry the projects out, even partially, in such a short time. A period of five years, as suggested by some of the people the delegation spoke to, would be more realistic.

As indicated above, the unusual voting system – voting for a single candidate – does not encourage the constitution of homogeneous or coalition groups, or debate on the various programmes, or clear majorities in the councils.

If all elections to renew community leaders and councils were held on the same day, regardless of any by-elections that may have been held, it would be easier to raise public awareness of community affairs and the lack of synchrony observed at present would be overcome.

The system of election funding should also be reviewed. The deposits required of candidates could be reduced so that they are less of a deterrent. It is no doubt unrealistic to envisage the public funding of political parties in the short term, but this could be a medium-term objective with a view, in particular, to encouraging more dynamic election campaigns that would stimulate greater public interest.

Appendix 1

List of the members of the CLRAE delegation to observe Local Elections

in Armenia on 24 October 1999

Mr Gabor KOLUMBAN (Romania), Chamber of Regions,

Head of the delegation, co-Rapporteur on local and regional democracy in Armenia

Mr Claude CASAGRANDE (France), Chamber of Local Authorities

Co-Rapporteur on local and regional democracy in Armenia

Ms Olga BENNETT (Ireland), Chamber of Local Authorities

Mr Moreno BUCCI (Italy), Chamber of Local Authorities

Mr Alfredas LANKAUSKAS (Lithuania), Chamber of Regions

Mr Viatcheslav ROGOV (Russia), Chamber of Local Authorities

Mr Jakob ENG (Norway), Chamber of Local Authorities

Mr Bernard SUAUD (France), Chamber of Regions

Ms Lea TOLONEN (Finland), Chamber of Local Authorities

Mr Robert HERTZOG, Expert, University of Strasbourg

M. György BERGOU, CLRAE Secretariat

M. Daniil KHOCHABO, CLRAE Secretariat

***

List of regions visited by the delegation :

Erevan, Ararat, Armavir, Aragotzotn, Gegharkunid, Kotayk, Vayot Dzor

Appendix 2

Programme of the CLRAE delegation's visit to Armenia to observe the local elections on 24 October 1999

20 October

Arrival in Yerevan

21 October

11.00 Accreditation by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC)

12.00 Meeting with Mr Artak Sahradian, Chair of the CEC

14.30 Meeting with Mr Rouben Miroyan, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly

15.15 Meeting with the members of the National Assembly's Committee on Legal Affairs

16.00 Meeting with members of the political parties represented in parliament

22 October

11.00 Meeting with the Association of Communities of the Republic of Armenia

14.30 Meeting with representatives of accredited international organisations in Armenia

16.00 Meeting with the accredited ambassadors of Council of Europe member states in the Republic of Armenia

23 October

10.00 Briefing

11.30 Departure for the regions (Marzes). Meetings with regional governors. Visits to regional and local electoral commissions.

14.30 Meeting between Mr Kolumban and Mr Albert Bazeyan, Mayor of Yerevan

15.30 Meeting between Mr Kolumban and candidates for the positions of community leader and community councillors

24 October

06.00 Departure for the regions (Marzes)

Observation of the elections

Return to Yerevan

25 October

11.00 Debriefing

26 October

10.00 Press conference

14.30 Meeting with Mr Khosrov Aroutiunyan, Minister of Territorial Administration of the Republic of Armenia

19.00 Reception given by Mr Khosrov Aroutiunyan, Minister of Territorial Administration of the Republic of Armenia

27 October

Departure.

Appendix 3

Press Release

Council of Europe Press Service

Ref.: 588e99

Local elections in Armenia

YEREVAN, 26.10.99 – A delegation of the COUNCIL OF EUROPE Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe (CLRAE) observed the second local elections in Armenia on 24 October 1999 at the invitation of the Armenian authorities. The delegation visited 88 polling stations in the regions of Yerevan, Ararat, Armavir, Aragotzotn, Kotayk, Vayot Dzor and Gegharkunik and monitored the counting process at five polling stations.

The delegation noted that the visited polling stations were well organised and that voting and counting was carried out in conformity with the current law. There was a significant improvement in managing the electoral process compared to the first local elections held in 1996. Based on its observations, the delegation declared the local elections to be free and fair.

Nevertheless, the observers recorded several minor irregularities, in particular as regards the electoral lists, and drew the attention of the Armenian authorities to the necessity of regularly updating the electoral registers.

In several constituencies the observer teams noted a low level of participation and an insufficient number of candidates for local councils seats.

The results of the observation mission will be included in a report on the state of local democracy in Armenia, which CLRAE will transmit to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly as part of the procedure for consideration of Armenia's request for membership.

A detailed report on the elections, including recommendations, will be prepared by rapporteurs Gabor KOLUMBAN (Romania, Chamber of Regions) and Claude CASAGRANDE (France, Chamber of Local Authorities). It will be adopted by the CLRAE Standing Committee and forwarded to the Armenian authorities.

The delegation would like to express its gratitude to the electoral commissions for their co-operation and assistance.

Delegation of the CLRAE:

Olga BENNETT (Ireland),

Moreno BUCCI (Italy),

Claude CASAGRANDE (France), Co-Rapporteur

Jakob ENG (Norway),

Robert HERTZOG (France), expert

Gabor KOLUMBAN (Romania), Co-Rapporteur

Alfredas LANKAUSKAS (Lithuania),

Viatcheslav ROGOV (Russian Federation),

Bernard SUAUD (France),

Lea TOLONEN (Finland),

Gyorgy BERGOU, Secretariat of the CLRAE

Daniil KHOCHABO, Secretariat of the CLRAE



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