By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Two influential factions of the Armenian government led by parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian traded accusations of vote manipulation on Monday after their showdown in a weekend by-election to parliament produced no clear winner.
Preliminary election results showed the candidate representing Baghdasarian’s Orinats Yerkir Party, businessman Artak Sargsian, leading his Hovsepian-backed challenger Arayik Hayrapetian by only 32 votes. Officials said the razor-thin margin is smaller than the discrepancies found in the vote tally, making a repeat vote likely.
The electoral commission of the single-mandate constituency just north of Yerevan received 21 complaints from the two main candidates by early afternoon, according to its chairman Grigor Arshakian. He told RFE/RL that the commission will discuss them on Tuesday morning. The law gives it five days to make a decision.
Arshakian confirmed reports that at one of the polling stations Hayrapetian’s proxies found 200 ballots marked for Sargsian and prevented them from being stuffed into the ballot box. The ballots are said to have been kept in the safe of the precinct commission chairman.
Each of the rival camps, meanwhile, claimed victory, accusing the other of resorting to fraud. Aghasi Arshakian, a Hayrapetian proxy and an incumbent member of the Armenian parliament, charged that his candidate was robbed of a “landslide victory” during what he said was a fraudulent vote count.
Orinats Yerkir did not officially comment on the situation. But one of its leaders, Hovannes Markarian, accused the opposite camp of using its close ties with the law-enforcement authorities to try to influence the vote outcome. He said prosecutors and police officials were illegally present at some polling stations and were too quick to launch a criminal investigation into the incident involving the pre-marked ballots.
“There was an atmosphere of fear in this and almost every other polling station,” Markarian told RFE/RL, adding that the Orinats Yerkir candidate has won fairly.
The by-election was widely anticipated as a contest between Baghdasarian and Hovsepian that should gauge their political clout. A figure close to Kocharian, Armenia’s chief prosecutor played a crucial role in last spring’s government crackdown on the opposition and is showing growing political ambitions.
Hovsepian’s support base is the nominally apolitical Nig-Aparan organization uniting natives of the eponymous region in central Armenia. The group already has several deputies affiliated with different parliament factions. Some media commentators already refer to it as “the Aparan clan.”
Armenia’s main opposition groups fielded no candidates in the constituency in line with their continuing boycott of parliament sessions. They say that free and fair elections are impossible under the ruling regime.
No violent incidents were reported during Sunday’s vote. The commission chairman did not deny or confirm reports that special police units were deployed in the area. “This is an election and this tension is natural,” he said.
(Photolur photos: Aghvan Hovsepian, left, and Artur Baghdasarian.)