By Atom Markarian, Hrach Melkumian, Ruzanna Khachatrian, Armen Zakarian and Emil Danielyan
Polls closed in Armenia’s parliamentary elections late Sunday after a generally calm voting that contrasted sharply with the tense atmosphere of presidential elections held less than three months ago.
There were no reports of massive ballot box stuffing, the hallmark of the dramatic presidential race. Vote buying was this time the most frequent of irregularities reported by various candidates throughout the day. Few of them could offer any proof of the allegations.
But RFE/RL correspondents did witness minibuses ferrying people to polling stations in Yerevan and the town of Sevan in central Armenia. The passengers denied being bribed though.
In the most extraordinary case, a senior pro-establishment member of Armenia’s outgoing parliament, Hovannes Hovannisian, closed his campaign offices and effectively pulled out of the race mid-way through the polling in protest against vote bribes allegedly handed out by his two wealthy rivals. Hovannisian, who was running for parliament in a constituency in central Armenia, did not back up the charges with evidence.
In a constituency in Yerevan’s Zeytun district, opposition candidate Manuk Gasparian accused the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and its local candidate, Vahagn Grigorian, of paying local residents 5,000 drams ($9) in exchange for their support.
“This is being done on a mass scale,” Gasparian claimed. “And the law-enforcement bodies are doing nothing to stop it.”
However, proxies for another major local candidate, Armen Rustamian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), did not back the allegations against the rival HHK. They said the balloting in Zeytun was largely free and fair.
Similar charges were made by the top opposition contender in the city’s Erebuni district, former Interior Minister Suren Abrahamian. Abrahamian’s main rival there is Gevorg Hakobian, an incumbent parliamentarian affiliated with the HHK.
Also accused of vote buying was a Dashnaktsutyun-backed candidate in the southern town of Masis, Samvel Sahakian. Sahakian, who runs a local tobacco factory, dismissed the claims as a “gossip.”
A proxy for his main opposition challenger, Murad Muradian, claimed that the voter turnout in the fruit-growing Masis area is low because “only two candidates promised to pay people.” “The people of Masis have become used to money [during the elections],” he said. “There is no election without money in Masis.”
The opposition candidate in the neighboring Artashat constituency, Aramayis Barseghian, said he is having a hard time coping with “carousel” -- a very elaborate and effective mechanism for vote buying. “Carousel” is very difficult to detect and stop. The U.S. State Department mentioned it in its statement on the Armenian presidential election last March.
Sporadic vote irregularities were reported from various parts of the country. A member of an election commission in Artashat said she witnessed ballot box stuffing in her polling station. The commission chairman, Spartak Ter-Sahakian, promised to investigate the incident. A similar incident was reported in Yerevan’s Shengavit district. An election commission member there, Rita Antonian, said an unknown man fled the polling station after she prevented him from stuffing a stack of ballots into one of the two transparent ballot boxes.
In Sevan, one of the candidates said the secrecy of the ballot was blatantly violated in a nearby village. Officials pledged to address the problem.
There were few reports of election-related violence. In Shengavit, witnesses said an election official was beaten up by several men outside his polling station after reprimanding a candidate’s proxy. But voting was otherwise calm.
Trouble was expected in several single-mandate constituencies with more than one government-connected and wealthy candidates in the running. Yerevan’s Ajapnyak district, for example, saw a tough struggle between two businessmen and incumbent deputies, Harutiun Pambukian and Ruben Gevorgian. No violent incidents were reported from Ajapnyak at least until the closure of polls. Nor did any of the candidates lodge complaints to the Central Election Commission.
The outcome of the majoritarian-based elections was a forgone conclusion in several constituencies where wealthy businessmen ran unopposed. Police officers guarding one such polling station in Yerevan played backgammon as voters cast their ballots. “Can you see anyone making trouble?” said one of them, explaining his self-confidence.
The local lone candidate is Samvel Aleksanian, a tycoon who enjoys a de facto monopoly on imports of sugar and alcohol to Armenia.
There were again inaccuracies in the voter lists, though not as widespread as they were in the past. About 4,300 people who did not find their names in the registers had their voting rights restored by courts on Sunday, according to the Armenian Justice Ministry.
The most famous of the individuals left off the voter lists was the wife of Stepan Demirchian, the leader of the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance. Tamar Demirchian, standing next to her husband after he cast his ballots, said: “I will definitely get back my vote and give it to Artarutyun.”
(RFE/RL photo: A man in Masis showing off his vote against all parties before casting the ballot.)