By Emil Danielyan, Ruzanna Khachatrian, Karine Kalantarian, Shakeh Avoyan, and Atom Markarian
Voting in the Armenian presidential run-off drew to a close late Wednesday with opposition allegations of “mass” irregularities strongly denied by incumbent President Robert Kocharian’s top campaign aides.
The campaign headquarters of opposition candidate Stepan Demirchian claimed that widespread arrests of its proxies, coupled with alleged attempts at ballot box stuffing and ouster of “numerous” election officials linked to the opposition, “jeopardize” the integrity of the tense poll. Kocharian’s campaign spokesman, however, denied the charges and insisted that the course of the balloting was “satisfactory.”
“We have registered unprecedented falsifications today,” Demirchian’s campaign manager, Grigor Harutiunian, declared at an emergency news conference called one hour before the closure of polls. “The elections are proceeding with numerous violations of the law.”
Like in the first round of the election, Harutiunian and a senior Demirchian lawyer, Ashot Sargsian, angrily brandished hundreds of ballots pre-marked in Kocharian’s favor. They said those were either intercepted by opposition activists or surrendered by Kocharian campaigners. “They got these ballots in order to stuff them into ballot boxes,” Sargsian said.
All the ballots carried official stamps and were therefore valid. Under Armenian law, lower-level election commissions must get those stamps from the Central Election Commission (CEC) in special sealed envelops on the night preceding the voting. Harutiunian and Sargsian said the CEC provided many commissions with spare envelops into which the illegally used stamps could be put before the opening of polling stations in the morning. The two men showed journalists several such envelopments with CEC marks on them.
“This proves that the fraud was planned by the Central Election Commission and its territorial divisions in advance,” Sargsian charged. “This is not an election. This is its imitation.”
Throughout the day there were reports of opposition proxies detained by police for allegedly interfering with the work of election commissions. The Demirchian campaign said they were taken into custody after protesting ballot box stuffing and other irregularities. An RFE/RL correspondent witnessed the release of one proxy by police in Yerevan’s Erebuni district. Police officials in other parts of the city declined to confirm or deny the reports.
The Demirchian aides also cited numerous instances of opposition members forced out of government-controlled election commissions across the country. Most of them are reportedly affiliated with the National Democratic Union (AZhM) which supports the opposition candidate.
Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, CEC chairman Artak Sahradian acknowledged that many commissioners wrote to him in recent days saying that they are forced to quit the bodies. He also admitted that the AZhM and other opposition groups represented in the commissions have trouble replacing those persons.
According to Pavel Yedigarian, a CEC member affiliated with the AZhM, it received 13 formal complaints of vote irregularities but failed to examine any of them. “The Central Election Commission is in no way reacting to the urgent appeals,” Yedigarian told RFE/RL.
But Sahradian assured reporters that all the complaints will find “quick solutions.”
Voting by the Armenian military, a major source of irregularities in all previous Armenian elections, again prompted serious complaints from the opposition and independent observers. One Western election monitor revealed to RFE/RL that dozens of army conscripts at a polling station in Yerevan showed their ballots to a local Kocharian proxy before casting them despite strong protests from opposition representatives.
However, Kocharian’s spokesman, Vahagn Mkrtchian, insisted that the voting process was largely democratic, dismissing “the spread of false information about falsifications” by the Demirchian camp. He said it is the opposition activists who broke the law by intimidating election officials in some polling stations.
According to the Kocharian campaign, one of Demirchian’s top allies, Albert Bazeyan, carried a handgun as he entered a polling station in the Armenian capital to bully its officials. But a senior member of Bazeyan’s Hanrapetutyun party, Aramazd Zakarian, denied the claims.
While making the allegations shortly before the start of the vote count, the Demirchian campaign stopped short of demanding the immediate scrapping of the run-off, with Harutiunian pledging to “fight to the end.” “We have not lost hope. When the election is finished and summarized, we will express our opinion,” he said.
“We know that we have won. These irregularities only testify to that,” Sargsian said, for his part.
The two men were to due to call another news conference after midnight.
Speaking to reporters after casting their ballots in the morning, both Kocharian and Demirchian expressed confidence in their victory. Demirchian stressed though that he can win the Armenian presidency only “in the event of democratic elections.” “We can already state that the elections are not free and fair,” he said.
Still, in some polling stations Demirchian representatives were content with the authorities’ handling of the vote. “Everything is quiet, normal and legal,” said Gagik Minasian, a proxy at an electoral precinct in Yerevan’s Kanaker-Zeytun district.
“I would say that the second round is well organized. I have no complaints yet,” said another opposition proxy as he closely watched voting in the neighboring Arabkir district.
The situation appeared different in some rural areas of the southern Ararat province where Demirchian proxies were very reticent and even looked frightened. One of them, Khachatur Grigorian, claimed that the local authorities are bribing voters and ferrying them to polling stations in minibuses. “They are doing all the work outside the polling stations,” he said.
Similar concerns were expressed by another Demirchian proxy, Sevan Kalashian, who followed the polling at an electoral precinct in Abovian, a city 20 kilometers north of Yerevan. “Things are seemingly normal in here,” he said. “But it’s practically impossible to stop what’s going on outside.”
Some of the areas where Kocharian was shown polling more than 90 percent of the vote in the first round came under closer scrutiny. International election observers, among them Lord Russell Johnston of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, visited three such polling stations in central Yerevan. Speaking to RFE/RL, Russell Johnston said “everything was being well conducted” there during his visit.
Opposition proxies there reported no major irregularities as of 5 p.m. local time. Some local voters complained though that they found names of their deceased relatives in the voter lists. One elderly man said he faced threats from unknown young men after demanding the removal of the dead persons from the registers.
Arinj, a big village just outside Yerevan where first-round official figures gave Kocharian 100 percent of the vote, was visited by U.S. Ambassador John Ordway, local election officials said. More than 60 percent of local residents already cast their ballots by early afternoon. Demirchian had no proxies there.
Asked about the reasons for the unusual unanimity of the Arinj villagers, the chairman of the local election commission, Levon Sargsian, said: “Our people always speak with one voice.” But at least one local resident, who refused to give his name, said that he voted for Demirchian both in the first and second rounds.
Arinj’s most prominent resident is Gagik Tsarukian, one of Armenia’s richest men and a staunch supporter of Kocharian. Tsarukian, whose diverse businesses provide employment to most locals, enjoys enormous political clout in Arinj and surrounding areas which seems to have translated into many votes for Kocharian. As one local man put it: “I voted for Gagik Tsarukian, both today and on February 19.”