Two government-backed candidates of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) swept to landslide victories in parliamentary by-elections on Sunday which their opposition challengers condemned as fraudulent.
Official vote results showed the candidates, Robert Sargsian and Arman Sahakian, winning in single-mandate constituencies in Yerevan and the country’s second city of Gyumri respectively with over 80 percent of the vote.
Sargsian is a brother-in-law of Yerevan Mayor Taron Markarian and Sahakian a businessman reputedly close to President Serzh Sarkisian’s influential son-in-law, Mikael Minasian.
In both constituencies, RFE/RL correspondents saw scores of government loyalists standing near polling stations and clearly influencing voting. They faced threats and intimidation from some of them.
Stepan Safarian of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, who challenged Sargsian in the Yerevan constituency encompassing the northern Avan and Nor Nork districts, refused to concede defeat, calling the vote “disgraceful.” The Safarian campaign alleged widespread vote buying, intimidation of local residents, and multiple voting by bribed voters or government supporters even before the closure of the polls on Sunday evening.
An RFE/RL correspondent witnessed groups of suspicious young men standing outside some local polling stations and residential buildings. Some of them held sheets of paper with lists of names written on them. They were visibly annoyed when she started filming empty minibuses parked outside a Nor Nork hostel.
“Phone them and tell them to come down,” one of the men told a woman as he gave her one such list shortly afterwards.
The woman reacted furiously when the correspondent asked her to explain whose names were listed there. She hit the reporter’s video camera and wrested her voice recorder.
Several other men standing just outside a polling station in Avan tried to interfere with the journalist’s work. A local precinct election commission downplayed their presence there, which is forbidden by Armenia’s Electoral Code. “Today is a holiday,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
The chairman of the district election commission, Gegham Hayrapetian, likewise claimed that there is nothing wrong with the conspicuous presence of such individuals. Seda Safarian, the Zharangutyun candidate’s sister and proxy, referred to those men as “neighborhood thugs” bullying local voters.
Hayrapetian also insisted that the election was free and fair, while Sargsian, the official winner, said he will comment later this week.
Sahakian, the election winner in Gyumri, faced similar allegations from his main challenger, Murad Grigorian of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK). Grigorian claimed that the ruling HHK ensured its candidate’s landslide victory though bullying and vote buying. “The authorities have demonstrated that their cynicism and impudence has no limits,” Grigorian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Across the Gyumri constituency, which also covers several nearby villages, an RFE/RL correspondent saw groups of HHK backers outside polling stations and residential homes. Some of them uttered voters’ names and discussed their transportation to polling places by phone.
One man threatened to smash the journalist’s camera after noticing that he is being filmed. “Don’t we have a right to stand in our neighborhood? I’ll now take your camera and smash it,” he told her.
In Akhurian, a small town just outside Gyumri, a dozen men were busy making phone calls as they clustered outside a polling station. “My dear, take your family folks and come over, or just tell them to get ready so we can go and pick them up,” one young man shouted into his phone.
The HHK’s Sahakian, meanwhile, insisted on Monday that he won fair and square. “There are many members of our party and they include representatives of various areas,” the 34-year-old businessman told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Naturally, they have supported me. I don’t consider that a crude use of administrative resources.”
For his part, the deputy chairman of the district election commission, Maxim Shahbazian, said the Gyumri election was “ideal.”