By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian insisted on Friday that the Armenian government’s constitutional changes did win sufficient popular support and confirmed his intention to contest the next parliamentary elections due in 2007.
Sarkisian was asked by reporters whether he thinks that as many as 1.5 million people, or nearly two thirds of Armenia’s eligible voters, indeed took part in Sunday’s constitutional referendum. “I believe that the referendum passed,” he replied. “I believe that more than one third [of the voters] said ‘yes.’ I believe that this is the clear will of our people.”
The reported turnout, one of the highest in Armenia’s history, contradicted anecdotal evidence of unprecedented voter apathy toward the Western-backed constitutional reform. Observers from the Council of Europe have reported “serious abuse in several polling stations which cast a shadow over the credibility of the officially announced turnout.”
Sarkisian seemed to imply that even is that the turnout is inflated, the Armenian authorities must have at least cleared the legal threshold of about 770,000 “yes” votes needed for the passage of the amendments. The opposition demands for the referendum to be declared void are therefore baseless, he said.
“Several persons can constantly express a desire to have the referendum results invalidated, but I don’t think that can serve as a basis [for scrapping the referendum],” he said.
Sarkisian rejected as a “lie” opposition allegations of multiple voting by tens of thousands of army conscripts. “Please be serious,” he told an RFE/RL correspondent, referring to the allegations. “I don’t answer unserious questions.”
However, problems with military voting, one of the traditional sources of election fraud in Armenia, were reported not only by the opposition. “Military voting appeared to lack the voluntarism which is the hallmark of democratic participation,” the Council of Europe observers said in a statement on Monday.
Sarkisian spoke to the press as he visited the site of the Armenian Defense Ministry’s new sprawling compound which is being constructed by a Russian company on the northern outskirts of Yerevan. The ministry staff are scheduled to move there in April 2007, two months before the next legislative polls.
Asked whether he expects to remain defense minister and work in the new building after the vote, Sarkisian said, “It’s hard to say in what building I will be. I may even be at my home. It depends on how much trust we will have, how many votes we will get.”
Sarkisian declined to specify on which party’s ticket he will ran for parliament in 2007. “We will answer this question after celebrating the Christmas holidays,” he said.
Even though Sarkisian is not affiliated with any political group, his name was second in the list of candidates fielded by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK) in the last election held in May 2003. The HHK won the largest number of parliament seats amid allegations of serious vote rigging echoed by other parties loyal to President Robert Kocharian.
The powerful defense minister is widely regarded as Kocharian’s most likely successor. But he has so far skirted questions about his participation in the next presidential election due in 2008. Sarkisian said during a recent visit to the United States that that will depend on the outcome of the parliamentary vote.