By Emil Danielyan and Atom Markarian
Voters were eerily absent from polling stations across Yerevan and surrounding regions on Sunday afternoon despite official figures that put the Armenian authorities on track to pass the legal threshold for pushing through their constitutional amendments.
According to Central Election Commission (CEC), just over a million people, or 43.5 percent of Armenia’s 2.3 million eligible voters took part in the constitutional referendum as of 5 p.m. The CEC put the nationwide turnout at 26.1 percent at 2 p.m., claiming that as many as 400,000 Armenians flocked to the polls in the next three hours.
The Armenian opposition, which has called for a popular boycott of the vote, was conducting a separate voter count. Opposition representatives said that less than 250,000 people across the country took part in the referendum by 5 p.m., accusing the authorities of grossly inflating the turnout.
The CEC data clearly contrasted with largely empty electoral precincts in Yerevan and areas south and north of the capital. Officials at a polling station in the city’s southwestern Malatia-Sebastia district said less than 8 percent of the local voters visited it as of 5 p.m. RFE/RL correspondents who spent about 40 minutes there counted only four voters casting their ballots.
“Compared with the presidential election, turnout is much smaller,” said Gohar Atabekian, secretary of the local precinct commission handling the vote.
However, the official national turnout is essentially the same the figures reported by the CEC at about the same time during the last presidential election held in March-February 2003. Public interest in the presidential ballot was far greater though.
Two other precincts in Malatia-Sebastia and one in the central Kentron district were similarly deserted, with voters appearing there only once in several minutes. Still, election officials put the turnout at about 25 percent late in the afternoon.
That voter cynicism will be widespread became obvious in the morning. Only about 70 out of 1,800 voters listed at a polling station in Yerevan’s northern Nor Nork district went there during the first three first three hours of voting. “People are very passive,” said Anahit Miskarian, an opposition observer. “Even the commission members are surprised.”
The rate of voting looked essentially the same in Echmiazdin, a town 20 kilometers south of Yerevan, and surrounding villages. The chairman of the electoral district No. 19 encompassing the area, Arsen Davtian, reported a 28 percent turnout at around 3 p.m. “Turnout is the same as in local elections,” he told RFE/RL.
“As always people are active in the morning and after the lunch break. It’s now lunchtime, things will get become more active shortly,” Shushan Nazarian, chairman of a precinct commission in Echmiadzin, said, explaining the virtual absence of any voters there.
Aghavni Vezirian, the chief election official in the nearby Musaler village, claimed a 42 percent turnout late in the afternoon. “Turnout is normal. People keep coming,” she said.
But as she spoke there was nobody else in the polling station except commission members, police officers, village chief Edgar Hovannisian and a group of unknown men. Hovannisian too claimed that there was greater voter activity “a short while ago.” “The opposition calls [for a boycott] didn’t make a difference,” he added.
The official voter turnout in the electoral district No. 28 covering Abovian, a town 15 kilometers north of Yerevan and surrounding villages already surpassed 40 percent at 2 p.m. despite similarly empty polling stations.
The opposition not only boycotted the referendum but also effectively withdrew from all electoral commissions, giving the authorities complete control over the process. The bulk of the ballots cast were thus likely to be “yes” votes. The authorities need at least 767,000 such votes to declare the Western-backed amendments adopted.