I had the honor and pleasure of serving as an interpreter for visiting European observers during the 2017 Parliamentary Elections held in Armenia on April 2. It was a long, exhausting day. But I shouldn’t complain, because those election monitors who stayed for the final count definitely got far less sleep than me that night. All in all, it was a fascinating experience—one from which I learnt a great deal.
Long before I had much of an idea about political philosophies or voting processes, I served as an all-day observer at a single polling station in Yerevan during the Parliamentary Elections in 2007. That was not a very positive experience, in part due to logistical reasons—staying in one single room from seven am one morning to six am the following morning with little access to food or water was no fun. Also, I had not been trained very well and didn’t know what violations to look out for. I would have been unable to handle any confrontations. Luckily the voting at my polling station passed by almost without incident that time.
Fast forward 10 years, and this time I got to visit ten polling stations with two distinguished women from the Continent who have many years’ experience observing elections—most particularly in the former communist world. The questions they asked and the things they indicated made me view the process in a whole new light. For example, it happened at one point that as soon as we appeared on the scene, someone standing by the doors dashed inside. They were probably informing the election commission officials or other people who would want to know about our presence, for whatever reason.
That sounds conspiratorial, but, well, not all was going smoothly everywhere, and the presence of foreign observers was sometimes less than welcome. At one polling station, we received two completely opposing accounts from observers and election commission members. One observer insisted on an incident that violated regulations, another observer said nothing had happened, and the election commission member not only, in effect, said that the first observer was lying—he was also displeased that that local observer was speaking with the European observer in English. It was a kind of tragicomic episode and unfortunately confrontational.
Other funny things also happened. At one polling station, an older voter could not quite read the ballots, so he asked someone nearby to help him. When that second person entered the voting booth, someone from the election commission reprimanded them for having two people in that closed space—a violation of the rules.
“Don’t do that sort of thing in front of these Americans,” he said in Armenian, gesturing towards us (This was an innocent mistake, let me quickly point out; the older voter then received an officially-registered helper to cast his ballot, as the voting rules allow).
At another spot, an observer took out a cigarette, to be quickly told by a member of the commission that he should not smoke in front of us visiting foreigners. Of course, smoking in the polling stations is anyway prohibited. I found it amusing that these people said these things aloud, knowing full well that the interpreter could understand them completely.
By far, the most unusual thing we witnessed that day was the young men just hanging out by the polling stations. There they were, a bunch of people in their twenties, chatting, smoking. They would come and ago. It was rather odd. We later heard allegations that these people organized the arrival and departure of citizens, perhaps implicitly or explicitly expecting a vote for some party or another from them. This was very puzzling to me, especially as, no matter how many thousands of voters can be brought to a polling station, it would be impossible to force them to vote for a particular candidate. There is no mechanism for that, apart from physically holding hands and making people choose a particular ballot.
In fact, I found it encouraging that there are people organizing a “get out the vote.” Isn’t that supposed to be active and democratic? What’s the matter with these young citizens providing a civic service like that?
Well, as one of the observers I was interpreting for told me, encouraging others to vote and making it easier for them to do so can be all well and good, but when people are forcibly moved from one place to another, when local big shots hang around here or there, the obligation one feels, the psychological pressure that develops can be quite overwhelming. Your friend, your neighbor is “so-and-so”’s man and he is there for you. He, in principle, has your back as a member of the community, which is great—but he is also watching you, he is directing your moves.
I have to say that I did not witness any outright ballot stuffing or crude fraud like that, but perhaps there was indeed an intimidating atmosphere from which I, as an outsider, was removed. I definitely sensed tension at one or two points, though, such as during closing time and when counting was about to begin.
There were many technical violations—minor mistakes or perhaps manipulations on purpose. It does not help that the voting process was so complicated. Exactly how the votes tally up as percentages to form a parliament with an indefinite number of members gathered from national lists and local lists, with the possibility of a “bonus” to a minority party to cross the 50% threshold, was something I never fully understood myself.
All that technology, including the registration machines, plus all those cameras (many of which were reportedly not working at certain points) were cool, but they were much more a reflection of the lack of public trust in the process, rather than strides in transparency or the development of democracy. I used that registration machine and voted just fine. Many citizens, however, had not bothered to watch the instruction videos or taken a look at the helpful posters stuck on the walls. The older folks were especially at a loss. In all events, there must be a simpler, more straightforward way of voting and counting. Whatever mechanisms are adopted, they must be based on a tradition of legitimacy and shared, objective expectations. Those key elements are lacking in Armenia.
Therefore, my big takeaways that day were that voting procedures were often not followed, whether or not as innocent and inconsequential mistakes, and that psychological factors played a crucial role, as opposed to more blatant rigging. The allegations of fraud are based on much more nuanced phenomena than I had ever realized.
At the same time, I must also express a genuine feeling of encouragement by the turnout. Maybe sixty percent is not as high a figure as it could be and, sure, maybe many voters came out because of a sense of intimidation rather than a sense of civic duty, but I was deeply impressed all the same by the fact that so many people came and wanted their voices to be heard.
Am I being naïve in imagining that this is a positive sign of members of society who want to be engaged in the political process? Or is it all just a show—voting bribes, pre-marked ballots, and all—and the masters of ceremonies have found in me an audience member willing to be fooled?