Armenia’s leading opposition groups dismiss the amendments as insignificant, however. They have also denounced the parliament majority for rejecting virtually all major proposals made by them.
The latest changes in the Electoral Code stem from sweeping political reforms that have been promised by the Armenian authorities to the Council of Europe. The Strasbourg-based organization’s Venice Commission, which monitors legal reforms in Council of Europe member states, has made a largely positive assessment of them.
The most important of the amendments passed by a vote of 76 to 12 relates to the formation of various-level election commissions. Until now, the president of the republic, a high court and the political forces represented in the parliament have each appointed one member of those commissions.
Under the amended code, from now on this mostly partisan mechanism will only apply to precinct-level commissions. The Central Election Commission and a dozen commissions running national electoral districts will be formed by Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, the Court of Appeals and the national bar association. President Serzh Sarkisian will have to endorse commission members nominated by them.
Davit Harutiunian, the chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs and the main author of the bill, insisted that this mechanism will make the top electoral bodies more independent and less partisan. Opposition lawmakers disagreed, saying that Sarkisian and his political allies will continue to control the election commissions.
Armenia - Davit Harutiunian, chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs, at a news conference, 24May2011.
Virtually all deputies who voted against the bill were from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) party. Deputies from the other opposition party represented in the parliament, Zharangutyun (Heritage), did not take part in the debates and the vote because of their continuing boycott of parliament sessions.
Dashnaktsutyun, Zharangutyun as well as the opposition Armenian National Congress, which holds no parliament seats, each tabled their own, overlapping proposals on the Electoral Code reform earlier this year. Virtually none of them was accepted by the parliament leadership.
One amendment strongly advocated by all three opposition forces would require electoral authorities to publish the lists of voters who have cast ballots in an election. Opposition politicians say this would be an effective safeguard against multiple voting, one of the most serious irregularities that have marred Armenian elections.
The parliament majority rejected the idea. It only agreed to add a clause allowing opposition proxies to sit next to election officials managing vote registers on polling days. Harutiunian said the proxies will be in a position to prevent possible fraud, a claim disputed by Dashnaktsutyun parliamentarians.
Another opposition amendment blocked by the majority would mandate the filming of the entire voting and counting process in all polling stations. Majority leaders argue that this measure is unnecessary because opposition proxies, election observers and journalists will be allowed to videotape proceedings on their own.
“Our objective is as follows. We must create mechanisms that won’t allow such dangers [of vote rigging] to emerge,” Harutiunian told a news conference. “So I presume that the next elections will have a qualitatively different level.”
Armenian electoral legislation has been repeatedly amended in the past. But those changes have clearly failed to address a culture of electoral fraud that has been the main source of political upheavals in Armenia since the mid-1990s. Opposition representatives say good laws are not enough to hold elections widely recognized as free and fair.
“Armenian authorities have preferred to make numerous amendments or adopt new election codes just to show that radical changes are underway,” Armen Rustamian, a senior Dashnaktsutyun deputy, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “But the problem remains unresolved.”