By Emil Danielyan, Irina Hovannisian, and Hovannes Shoghikian
Armenians flocked to polling stations on Saturday in parliamentary elections that are closely watched by the international community and will be critical for the political future of their country’s leadership.
Voter turnout appeared to be relatively high in the morning, with lines forming in some polling stations in Yerevan. According to the Central Election Commission, more than 10 percent of Armenia’s 2.3 million eligible voters went to the polls as of midday local time.
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian sounded confident of his governing Republican Party’s victory in the vote after casting ballots in a polling station in central Yerevan. “As always, our chances are very good,” he told reporters there.
Sarkisian said he be believes the elections will not be marred by serious fraud despite claims to the contrary made by some opposition leaders. “I very much hope that these elections will be judged by both observers and our people to be the best elections in the history of the Republic of Armenia,” he said.
“I strongly believe that the pre-election period proceeded in accordance with democratic principles,” he added. “If people think otherwise, let them say it. This is part of democracy. If we got few votes, we would probably say the same thing.”
The Republican Party (HHK) is tipped to win the largest number of seats in Armenia’s next parliament owing to its control of many government levers and strong presence in election commissions. The HHK’s victory is essential for Sarkisian’s plans to succeed Robert Kocharian as president of the republic early next year.
Kocharian effectively acknowledged this as he spoke with journalist after voting in the same precinct. The winner of the legislative polls will have “better starting positions” for contesting the presidential election of 2008, he said.
Kocharian made the point that his successor will need a “serious power base” in the National Assembly. “If there is solid support in the National Assembly, we will have a strong president,” he said. “If not, we will have a somewhat nominal president.”
Kocharian refused to say whether he voted for the HHK or another election frontrunner, the pro-presidential Prosperous Armenia Party. He instead expressed hope that some of the Armenian opposition parties, which he branded as agents of unspecified foreign powers, will not be represented in the newly elected parliament. “I hope to see Armenian opposition parties, rather than foreign representations, in our parliament,” he said without naming names.
The Armenian leaders also dismissed plans by the most radical of his opponents to stage post-election rallies in Yerevan in a fresh attempt to topple his administration. “We have some representatives of the radical opposition who have developed a strange habit of committing the same mistakes,” he said.
Sarkisian struck a more conciliatory note, suggesting that the planned street protests will not prompt the kind of a government crackdown that stifled the last opposition bid for regime change three years ago. “I think our opposition is now quite mature and won’t violate any law, won’t disrupt public order,” he said.
Leaders of the more moderate opposition parties have so far avoided street protests so far and still hope to win a considerable number of parliament seats. Former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, in particular, said his Orinats Yerkir Party is aiming for a “weighty presence” in the National Assembly.
“The party is closely watching the entire electoral process all over the republic with 6,000 commission members and proxies,” Baghdasarian said in another polling station in central Yerevan. He said Orinats Yerkir representatives have already reported several instances of serious fraud on Saturday and witnessed a “mass distribution of vote bribes” the previous day.
“We urged law-enforcement bodies to catch and punish all those who are handing out vote bribes,” said Baghdasarian. “We call on everyone not to trample on the people’s rights and to hold transparent elections.”
Another opposition leader, Raffi Hovannisian of the Zharangutyun party, sounded more optimistic. “We still have a chance to have first free and fair election in 16 years,” Hovannisian told reporters in his precinct. “I hope post-election developments in Armenia will center only on the formation of a government of national unity,” he said.