By Astghik Bedevian and Nane Atshemian
Campaigning for Sunday’s referendum on amendments to Armenia’s constitution drew to a close late Friday with a pop concert sponsored by their supporters and an around-the-clock sit-in announced by their opponents.
President Robert Kocharian made a final appeal to Armenians, urging them to vote for his constitutional draft in large numbers in an extensive interview with the country’s three largest television channels. Each of them broadcast it in full before a legal ban on any campaigning went into force at midnight.
“We should take time and trouble go to the polls and vote,” said Kocharian. “We should not think that people are in favor [of the amendments], the government is in favor and there will be a positive outcome [of the referendum] anyway.”
Kocharian reiterated the government view that a “yes” vote does not necessarily mean a blanket endorsement of Armenia’s leadership. “Each of us should vote not for me but for their children and their country, our beloved Armenia,” he said.
Mher Shahgeldian, the manager of the pre-referendum “Yes” campaign spearheaded by the country’s three governing parties, was scheduled to hold a news conference. However, it was cancelled for unknown reasons. Shahgeldian refused to talk to reporters throughout the week. His headquarters seemed eerily deserted on Friday.
The “Yes” camp, according to its spokesman Spartak Seyranian, is satisfied with its handling of the campaign. Seyranian told RFE/RL that its 75 “propaganda groups” have visited more than 250 towns and villages across the country in the past six weeks. “We seem to have achieved the objective which we set one and a half months ago,” he said.
Seyranian claimed that the three pro-Kocharian parties represented in the Armenian government have spent only about 25 million drams ($54,000) and refused to accept funds contributed by wealthy businessmen. He had earlier admitted that they did not have to pay for any of the “Yes” ads aired by TV channels. The latter refused to broadcast any ads from the opposite camp.
The final day of campaigning also saw a rare rally by about a hundred supporters of Kocharian’s constitutional reform. Most of its participants were schoolchildren aged between 11 and 13. They were accompanied by their teachers who, as one boy said, told them that “we must say yes to the constitutional reforms.”
“Let us make our choice in favor of the progress and development of our country,” Tigran Urikhanian, the leader of a small pro-government party, told his unusually young audience.
Preparations for the referendum were also the subject of a meeting between Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian and a large group of other prosecutors. Hovsepian’s office said they discussed ways of ensuring “law and order” on voting day. The chief prosecutor, whose Nig-Aparan organization has conducted a separate “Yes” campaign, was quoted as urging members of elections not to succumb to any “provocations.”
The amendments put to the referendum would transfer some of the sweeping powers enjoyed by the Armenian president to the parliament, the cabinet of ministers and the courts. Opposition leaders insist that they are cosmetic and could even allow Kocharian to seek a third term in office in 2008.
The authorities, for their part, emphasize the fact that the amendments reflect most of the recommendations made by the Venice Commission, a body advising the Council of Europe on legal reform. They say success of the constitutional reform would therefore boost Armenia’s standing in the pan-European organization. The president of its Parliamentary Assembly, Rene van der Linden, warned this week that failure of the reform could set back Armenia’s European integration.
To pass, the amendments have to be endorsed by a majority of referendum participants who would make up at least one third of Armenia’s 2.25 million eligible voters. Mindful of this requirement, the Armenian opposition has urged supporters to boycott the vote.
Many of the Yerevan residents randomly interviewed by RFE/RL said they will not vote on Sunday. “Because I don’t trust this government and its constitution,” one man said, summing up the mood among many disgruntled Armenians.
“This will be my firm ‘no,’” said a woman who also planned to boycott the referendum.
“Saying yes is the right thing to do,” countered another voter. He at the same time claimed that “because the existing constitution doesn’t work, the new one won’t work either.”
“I’ve heard that many people won’t take part in the referendum, but I will,” stated another woman.
(RFE/RL photo: "Yes" banners at Yerevan's Freedom Square.)