By Ruben Meloyan and Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenia’s largest vote-monitoring organization echoed on Monday international observers’ largely positive verdict on Saturday’s parliamentary elections which it said were more democratic than the previous ones.
The non-governmental organization It’s Your Choice (IYC) monitored the election campaign and deployed about 4,000 observers in most of the polling stations across the country on voting day.
“These elections were better and took place in a more civilized atmosphere than the past elections,” the IYC chairman, Harutiun Hambartsumian, told RFE/RL, presenting their preliminary findings. “Of course, there were shortcomings, violations. But there was a clear improvement.”
Hambartsumian said the Armenian authorities failed to create a level playing field for all major contenders and used their control of election commissions and other “government resources” to retain a comfortable majority in the National Assembly. He said IYC observers did not witness instances of vote buying which opposition parties claim were widespread. But he said they did see busloads of people transported to polling stations.
“There was busing of individuals to polling stations that became overcrowded, complicating the voting process,” Hambartsumian said. “Besides, our observers saw ballot stuffing attempts in a number of polling stations. There were also instances of multiple voting.”
“Since those violations were not widespread, they could not have affected election results,” he added.
However, representatives of two coalitions of civic groups that monitored the vote in the northern cities of Gyumri and Vanadzor were far more critical of the authorities’ handling of the polls as they spoke at a news conference in Yerevan. Levon Barseghian, chairman of Gyumri’s Asparez Press Club, said he and other local NGO observers found clear indications of widespread vote buying in Armenia’s second largest city.
“Groups of four to five people went from house to house and took voters to polling stations throughout the day,” Barseghian said. “I presume that it had to do with vote buying. This was a very good mechanism for dishing out vote bribes. They thereby managed to involve a large number of people in the process.”
Artur Sakunts, a human rights campaigner from Vanadzor, claimed that an “atmosphere of fear” reigned in the city and all over the northern Lori region even before the vote. “The so-called administrative resources were broadly used in schools and other public institutions,” he said. “As well as enlisting voters in the Republican and Prosperous Armenia parties en masse, [local authorities] warned people not to support or vote for other parties.”
The leader of one of Armenia’s most radical opposition groups, meanwhile, continued to allege that supporters of the governing Republican Party (HHK), the official election winner, illegally voted in place of as many as 400,000 Armenians that are absent from the country or dead. According to Nikol Pashinian, each of those HHK loyalists was issued with several fake passports to do so.
The Armenian Police Service shrugged off the allegation on Monday. “This statement is the product of Nikol’s sick imagination, and it is up to him to seek medical treatment,” it said in a statement. The police said only 113,000 citizens eligible voters have received new Armenian passports over the past year.
But Pashinian stood by his allegations, saying that groups of individuals holding several false passport each toured polling stations across the country and illegally cast ballots for the HHK throughout Saturday. The firebrand oppositionist offered no documentary proof of the claims. But he said a selective verification of signed voter lists would prove him right.
Pashinian added that the authorities plan to apply the same vote rigging technique during the presidential election due early next year. “Those passports are still there and several individuals, including Serzh Sarkisian, know where they are kept because those passports will again be used during the presidential elections,” he told RFE/RL.