Changes to the law
The 2005 poll was the fourth parliamentary election held in Karabakh since independence was declared in 1991. A new election code had been adopted in 2004 which made several major changes to the existing legislation and, according to President Ghukasian, “accorded with Council of Europe norms”. In order to boost the profile of political parties a measure of proportionality was introduced into future elections. Now, 11 out of the 33 seats in parliament are to be filled by parties that pass a 10% hurdle. The military is not allowed to participate in the proportional part of the vote. Nevertheless, there were still many candidates (57) standing as ‘independents’ in the majoritarian part of the poll and, in such a small electorate, it is not surprising that personality played a big part in people’s choices as, even in the towns, most of the candidates are known personally. Use of the mobile ballot box for the homebound has been abolished while the transparent ballot box - ubiquitous in post-Communist, OSCE states - was introduced for the first time.
Rules governing membership of election commissions, including the Central Election Commission, have been changed. Whereas in the past such people were appointed by local administrations now they are chosen by parties and the president. The CEC has 7 members, two from each party/faction in the NKR parliament and 3 appointed by the president. In 2005 this meant that both Democratic Artsakh and the ARF had four members between them. The problem for this system is going to arise if there are no opposition parties (or factions) in the parliament.
The parties, candidates:
167 candidates stood. 109 were nominated under the majoritarian system, 52 as party members and 57 as independents. This was an increase on 2000 when 113 candidates ran.
The 6 parties and one alliance which contested the election:
ARF (Dashnaktsutyan) – Union 88
Free Motherland Party
NKR Communist Party
Democratic Party of Artsakh
Social Justice Party
For Moral Revival Party
Our Home Armenia Party
The leading, pro-government party in Karabakh is the Democratic Party of Artsakh a recent merger between the Democratic Artsakh Union and Karabakh’s Social Democratic Party. The party’s chairman and, since the election, the country’s prime minister, Ashot Gulian, told BHHRG that unemployment was still a problem in Karabakh and that many specialists could not find work; the country needed “big investments”. He claimed that the main opposition coalition had only campaigned “negatively” without presenting any solutions to these problems even though, he claimed, there were “huge” differences between Democratic Artsakh and ARF/Movement 88. Even so, Gulian admitted that “all parties are united on the subject of independence”.
The Dashnaks (ARF – Armenian Revolutionary Federation), supported the previous government but fell out with the Artsakh Union in December 2004 after its sole minister, Armen Sargsian, was sacked from his post as minister of education and culture. In a surprise move, the ARF decided to contest the election in coalition with a new party founded in 2004 , Movement 88, which grew out of a public organization dedicated to reform. Although its roots lay in the Stepanakert Press Club and its founder, Gegham Baghdasarian, the mayor of Stepanakert, Eduard Aghabekian, was its leading candidate.
The Motherland Party was formed 4 months before the election and put up 17 candidates on the PR list and 10 majoritarian candidates. Its leadership, several of whom are well known personalities in Karabakh, described Motherland to BHHRG as a right-centrist party which criticized the slow pace of reforms alleging that people didn’t believe that life was getting better. There were suspicions that the party was a front for the government although the leadership told BHHRG that it would not form a coalition with any other party if it got into parliament. However, with 10 seats, if it proves to be supportive of the new government’s policies it will mean there is very little real opposition in the new parliament.
The most intriguing development was the coalition that had been formed between the Dashnaks and Movement 88 whose general-secretary, Geghan Baghdasarian also edits the opposition newspaper Demo, published twice a month and financed by a consortium of British based NGOs – Conciliation Resources, LINKS and International Alert. It also cooperates with London-based International War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). The paper currently employs 12 people and is the first – and only – publication of its kind in Nagorno-Karabakh. The paper has given space to journalists from Baku, according to one commentator. Circulation is small and Baghdasarian admitted that copies of Demo had been given away free before the election, even in villages.
This ‘marriage of convenience’ as it was called stretched the credibility of even the most cynical observers as the Dashnaks are a nationalist party with strong socialist leanings while the main protagonists in Movement 88 have long promoted some kind of dialogue with Baku and visited Azerbaijan for conferences and ‘confidence building’ measures on many occasions. They are also supporters of ‘free market’ policies – in other words, opposed to state control of the economy.
BHHRG failed to get a satisfactory answer to why this coalition was deemed necessary. The ARF is a well known party which had 9 members in the previous parliament, their ‘sister’ party in Armenia is actually part of the governing coalition. ARF supporters are likely to be the last people who believe in lowering the temperature with Baku in the absence of a settlement favourable to Karabakh. Baghdasarian admitted that the Dashnaks took a more “patriotic” stand while Movement 88 put the emphasis on “human rights”. He told BHHRG that the coalition was “tactical” and “strategic” and that the two parties would operate independently if they got into parliament. On top of this, Demo had published 3 articles criticising the Dashnaks which led the party to ask whether they were with them or against them. Bahdasarian criticized the election campaign and said that the poll would be rigged, unlike in the past when “there had been no need to resort to fraud”. But BHHRG recalled that Baghdasarian’s had criticised the 2002 presidential election which he called “free but not fair”.
Vitaly Balasanian, head of the Dashnak/ Movement 88 Alliance claimed that the party would not accept any watered down sovereignty but it was “ready to sit down at the negotiating table”. He stressed the socialist nature of their policies and the need to keep plants of strategic importance, like electricity, under state ownership adding that in the future they would privatize strategic resources “to European standards”. He seemed unaware of the fact that the EU demands overall privatization of all such resources. Again, there was vagueness as to why the ARF should be in coalition with a party that flirts with Baku as he admitted that “people don’t welcome such negotiations” and which also has a free market agenda in marked contrast to the Dashnak’s own philosophy. Perhaps Movement 88’s leader, Eduard Aghabekian, mayor of Stepanakert affected the decision as he seems to be genuinely popular in Karabkh. The only other explanation that sprung to mind was the possibility that Movement 88 could attract funds due to its good Western connections.
Mr. Baghdasarian claimed that there had been breaches of the law in the election campaign and that the ‘administrative powers – the army, police and tax authorities were working in the government’s favour. He also claimed that pro-government personnel predominated in all the election commissions and that teachers had been threatened for taking part in ARF-Movement 88 meetings. Vitaly Balasarian and the Dashnaks were more heated in their allegations of fraud although they admitted that the party had been able to use its allotted slots for pre-election propaganda in the media.
As BHHRG representatives began their meeting at the ARF’s party headquarters they were told that reports of fraud in the dying hours of the campaign were coming in from several constituencies and the Group was urged to check them out. However, when asked for the details and locations of these breaches of the election code the allegations melted away. On election day itself, a group of US observers was also urged to visit a remote polling station where foul play was alleged only to find after a long journey that the allegations were unfounded.
Perhaps it was these sorts of tactics that led the government to accuse the opposition (not unreasonably) of running an overwhelmingly ‘negative campaign’ bereft of any real policies that would attract voters.
BHHRG’s observers monitored the election in ten polling stations in both the towns and countryside including Askeran, Khanabad, Martakert, Ajgestan, Khnatsakh and Stepanakert itself.
As with previous elections, the Group found the poll well conducted and polling stations properly equipped except, that is, for a theatre in Askeran which was being used for the election instead of the local school. The commission and voters (many of them elderly) were precariously perched on a raised stage and the scene looked set for someone to fall off and suffer injury. There was also a scrum around the entrance to the voting room something often seen at badly conducted elections, for instance, in both neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan but never before in Karabakh.
Election registers were generally correctly compiled. Those who, for some reason or another, found themselves left off the list were able to appeal to a local court to be reinstated if their documents were in order. However, this only amounted to a handful of voters in the polling stations visited. Commission members were well-informed about the new election law and were always able to produce facts and figures during the day. The new, transparent ballot boxes were openly displayed and voting booths properly curtained.
There did not seem to be unauthorised people (police or security personnel) in the polling stations visited or any agitation by candidates or their supporters/proxies although BHHRG was informed that a member of the Motherland Party was agitating in a polling station in Martakert, something denied by the polling station chairwoman. Also, earlier in the day, BHHRG bumped into the mayor of Stepanakert, Eduard Aghabekian, outside the polling station in the village of Khanabad. The mayor who said he was on “holiday” alleged that policemen were not keeping order, allowing agitation to take place too close to the polling station and that, in breach of the election code, cars were parked too close to the entrance. As the opposition was alleging ‘misuse of administrative power’ in the election process, his presence and avowed concern for the conduct of proceedings well away from his own electoral district gave rise to some suspicion that he might have been agitating voters himself, if only by appearing since he is very well-known. For their part, Mr Agabekian’s supporters had alleged that government ministers abused their “holidays” to campaign for pro-government candidates.
Some elderly people were bewildered by the new system with two ballot papers for proportional and candidate lists. As far as BHHRG could see, commission members were explaining the system impartially. Occasionally, older people entered the voting booth together but this was more a hangover from Soviet times than any attempt by people to influence their friends/relatives.
Voters appeared enthusiastic and the turn out was high. As in Soviet times, voting is still seen as a day out - a chance to dress up and meet friends, though with the added benefit of making a choice. Voters spoken to by BHHRG said that they were satisfied with the campaign and had adequate information on which to base their choice. Candidate and party observers in the polling stations visited made no complaints. Voters denied that they had been pressurised in any way to vote for a particular party or candidate.
However, the most unsatisfactory aspect of the poll was the conduct of the count. As in other countries which have adopted OSCE practices for the conduct of elections, Nagorno Karabakh has refined the process of the transparent count to absurd proportions. It can now take over two hours even before the ballot box is opened as commission members count and recount voter lists and collate other election materials. When the box is eventually opened one vote is taken out by the chairman and shown to each commission member individually before it is accepted as valid. On top of this, a new element has been added, namely, the reading out of the relevant passage of the election law before each stage of the tortuous proceedings unfolds. BHHRG encountered the same palaver in Kiev during the count in Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election.
Rather than lead to maximum transparency this system causes tempers to fray and concentration to sap as most commission members will have been on duty for as many as 15 hours when the polls close. At the count in Stepanakert, No 5/3 voices were raised and spirits seemed low as the proceedings grinded needlessly on into the night. As it has done on previous occasions, BHHRG would urge a more realistic (and probably more accurate) approach to vote counting in Nagorno Karabakh and elsewhere in the future.
According to the preliminary results made public by the Central Election Commission of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR), 78 percent or 66,774 voters cast their ballots in the June 19 parliamentary election, In the proportional system, constituencies Artsakh Democratic Party (chaired by Ashot Gulian) received 22, 939 votes, (5 seats plus 7 majoritarian mandates) followed by Azat Hayrenik (Free Homeland) with 15, 931 votes (3 seats plus 7 majoritarian mandates) and ARF-Movement 88, with 14, 535 votes (3 seats and no majoritarian mandates). 8 independent candidates were also elected.
Post-election: the observers’ verdict
As BHHRG has already noted, a large group of international monitors observed the 19th June parliamentary election in Karabakh. Such people have, so far, never acknowledged - let alone attended - elections in other unrecognised ‘statelets’ like Transnistria and South Ossetia. Not only was there a high profile group of US monitors in Stepanakert but also observers from Iran, Russia, Greece, Croatia, the Czech Republic and the U.K. (BHHRG). Generally speaking, they gave high marks to the conduct of the election.
However, the opposition cried foul and there were yet more accusations that people voted for candidates “named by their bosses” as well as claims of “threats of dismissal from work, bribery etc.” Also, Antranig Kasbarian, Nagorno-Karabagh Program Director of the Tufenkian Foundation also criticized aspects of the poll, pointing out the strange outcome whereby the opposition Dashnak/Movement 88 party had won 3 seats in the proportional part of the vote while failing to win any majoritarian seats.
Both the British and US observers had been alerted to possible fraud by officials from the Dashnak party but failed to find any evidence of this on polling day itself. The 7-man team from the US was the largest group observing the poll. Their presence was intriguing if only because such a high powered team of former State Department employees would hardly have taken the step of participating in the NKR election without (at least, tacit) approval from Washington, particularly as they included fierce critics of similarly un-declared Serb statelets in Croatia and Bosnia after 1991 which had enjoyed so-called diplomatic relations with Karabakh before their liquidation in 1995. A smaller group containing several of those present in 2005 had monitored the 2002 presidential election; on that occasion their final report had been much less effusive.
At the post-election press conference held in the CEC, members of the US delegation, known as the ‘Williams Group’, fulsomely praised the conduct of the election making no criticism whatsoever of any part of the poll. Spokesman, James Hooper congratulated Nagorno-Karabakh for its high standard of democracy which, he claimed, bolstered the unrecognised republic’s claims to some kind of legitimacy. According to Paul Williams, the conduct of election which “substantially strengthens Nagorno-Karabakh’s claims both to self-determination and independence”, referring to the “high standards which we saw on election day …” Mr Williams claimed that “all efforts to… allow participation of Azeris [were] blocked by the Azeri government.” He added, “it is very clear under international law for an entity such as Nagorno-Karabakh to exercise its legitimate right to self-determination it must undertake effective self-government, and free and fair elections are a crucial element of effective self-government”.
Although none of the group went as far as to actually recommend independence, they came perilously close. As Karabakh is, according to James Hooper, “a country the US cares about” and that they would be “speaking to people in Washington” when they returned, the authorities in Stepanakert could be forgiven if he they concluded that international recognition was not far off. Only time will tell whether Mr. Hooper’s prediction that “no one can deprive you of what you already have” turns out to be correct.
As the observers left, news filtered out (according to friends and relatives) that a leading Dashnak candidate, Pavel Manukian, was in a military hospital having been, attacked by the NKR defence minister, General Seyran Ohanian. Maukian had visited the ministry on the evening of 19th June where the incident took place. No details have emerged as to what exactly happened although local officials claim Manukian was drunk at the time. President Ghukasian promised to investigate the incident thoroughly but it pointed to underlying tensions in the republic. The three ARFE-Movement 88 candidates elected on 19th June t announced that they would not take up their seats in parliament in protest at the incident.