By Emil Danielyan
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian was heading for a landslide victory in Armenia’s dispute presidential election early Wednesday, according to early official vote results rejected as fraudulent by his main opposition challenger.
The Central Election Commission (CEC) said that with more than one third of the ballots counted, Sarkisian won 57.8 percent of the vote, giving him what looked like an unassailable lead over former President Levon Ter-Petrosian and former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian. Ter-Petrosian were shown getting 18 percent and 17 percent of the vote respectively. Another major candidate, Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), came in a distance fourth with less than 6 percent, according to the CEC.
The Ter-Petrosian campaign, which alleged widespread fraud and violent attacks on scores of its activists throughout polling day, was quick to reject the official vote tally as fraudulent. It said the authorities ensured the “fraudulent” outcome by grossly inflating voter turnout which the CEC put at a record-high 70 percent.
Nikol Pashinian, a spokesman for Ter-Petrosian, denounced the authorities’ handling of the vote as an “attempt at a criminal coup d’etat.” “The elections took place with blatant violations which seriously affected the overall results,” he told an overnight news conference.
“According to our information, Levon Ter-Petrosian has won in the first round,” claimed Pashinian.
Baghdasarian’s campaign headquarters said in a written statement that it is “attentively following” the vote count and will formulate its position on the vote results after the process is over. It also claimed that the purpose of “ballot box stuffing and other mass violations” was to secure Sarkisian’s victory in the first round of voting.
Hovannisian and Dashnaktsutyun did not immediately comment on the government’s conduct of the vote and its preliminary results.
Both the Ter-Petrosian campaign and the Zharangutyun Party, a major opposition group supporting the ex-president, publicized long lists of alleged irregularities reported by their activists before and after the closure of the polls.
“I can’t even call this event an election,” said Stepan Safarian, a Zharangutyun leader who coordinated the party’s vote-monitoring activities. “In many cases, polling stations resembled a battlefield because there were constant reports of threats, violence and the most ugly forms of fraud.”
“I have monitored elections in Armenia since 1996 and have never seen anything like this before,” Safarian told reporters. “This is a disgrace for our country and this government.”
The early returns released by the CEC were largely in tune with the findings of an exit poll which was commissioned by Armenian state television, organized by the British group Populus and conducted by the pro-government Armenian Sociological Association. It showed Sarkisian garnering 57 percent of the vote, way ahead of Ter-Petrosian and Baghdasarian who got 17 percent and 14.6 percent respectively.
However, the figures differed sharply from the results of another exit poll conducted by a coalition of some 30 Armenian non-governmental organizations. According to them, Ter-Petrosian was in the lead with 37 percent of the vote, followed by Sarkisian who got 35 percent.
Pashinian reaffirmed Ter-Petrosian’s and his allies’ plans to rally tens of thousands of people in Yerevan on Wednesday afternoon. Ter-Petrosian said at the weekend that the rally will be “lasting” if the authorities rig the ballot. Pashinian made it clear that the Ter-Petrosian campaign’s final assessment of the election and resulting actions will not depend on the content of international observers’ preliminary election report which is due to be released later in the day.
(Photolur photo: Sarkisian pictured at a polling station in Yerevan.)