Armenia’s presidential election can already be considered free and fair, the authorities in Yerevan declared on Monday evening amid fraud allegations made by at least one of the opposition candidates.
“It is obvious that we are seeing the best ever presidential elections where violations will be minimal,” Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesman for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), said in a statement issued one hour before the closure of the polls.
Tigran Mukuchian, the chairman of the Central Election Commission (CEC), likewise insisted earlier in the evening that there have been only “isolated cases” of irregularities reported by media and opposition campaigners. “Those alerts that are now being investigated relate to isolated cases observed on election day,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Mukuchian spoke after the campaign headquarters of Raffi Hovannisian, the leading opposition candidate, alleged “numerous” violations such as vote buying, multiple voting and voter intimidation. “I don’t remember seeing violations of this scale and type before,” Hovsep Khurshudian, the campaign spokesman, charged at a news conference.
Khurshudian claimed that multiple voting in President Serzh Sarkisian’s favor was facilitated by easy erasure of special passport stamps as well as the inclusion of an unusually large number of Armenians on so-called “additional voter lists.”
Armenia - An official at a polling station in Yerevan puts a special stamp on a voter's passport which is supposed to prevent multiple voting, 18Feb2013.
The additional rolls are supposed to be drawn up by the Armenian police for voters who are unable to cast ballots near their places of residence on election day for various objective reasons.
“In several cases, hundreds of people have been included on the additional voter list for a single precinct,” Khurshudian told a news conference. “And those people tend to be from the same town or village.”
According to Mukuchian, the lists in question currently include some 18,000 voters. The CEC chief ruled out the possibility of multiple voting by them, saying that they all were automatically excluded from the regular registry.
Mukuchian denied opposition claims that ink stamps meant to prevent people from voting in more than one polling station again routinely disappeared or faded minutes after being put in their passports by election officials. He did not deny, though, that the stamps could be deliberately deleted from passports with wet napkins. But he said there are also other legal safeguards against multiple voting.
“Our citizens have alerted us that this way people preparing for multiple voting eliminate stamps from their passports,” said Khurshudian. He also claimed that village mayors across the country are breaching the secrecy of the ballot to make sure that bribed or intimidated local residents vote for Sarkisian.
Speaking in the early afternoon, the opposition representative did not say whether the alleged violations are serious enough to call into question the integrity of the election.
Other opposition candidates and their representatives made no official statements on the election conduct before the end of the voting at 8 p.m. local time.
Meanwhile, the Armenian police issued a list of almost 40 irregularities reported by media and opposition sources. A police statement said that they are now being investigated by regional police divisions or have been referred to the CEC. The police reported no election-related detentions as on Monday evening.
The list included an incident at a polling station in Artashat, a town 30 kilometers south of Yerevan notorious for election-related violence. Two civic activists monitoring voting there told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that a group of about 30 young men burst into the station and stuffed hundreds of ballots, meeting no resistance from members of the local precinct election commission as well as police officers on duty there.
“They pushed us aside and twisted our arms,” said Narine Esmaili, an election observer representing the Armenian branch of the anti-graft international watchdog Transparency International.
The other observer, Artak Hambardzumian of the Journalists for Human Rights non-governmental organization, was questioned by the Artashat police after the incident. Esmaili refused to answer police officers’ questions.
Armenia - Voters at a polling station in Yerevan, 18Feb2013.
Members of the precinct commission denied seeing any ballot stuffing. Some of them only admitted that the situation became chaotic at one point.
Karo Karapetian, an Artashat-based parliament deputy affiliated with the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), and a group of burly men accompanying him could be seen touring other local polling stations without authorization. When approached by an RFE/RL correspondent, Karapetian referred to himself as a proxy for President Serzh Sarkisian. Election officials acknowledged, however, that he was not registered as one.
Many people appeared to be voting in Artashat in groups. Surik Grigorian, a registered Sarkisian proxy in one local precinct, could be heard telling another person by phone, “Everyone with whom we agreed is coming and voting. Everyone, all apartment blocks that we agreed with.”
Another RFE/RL correspondent witnessed groups of young men with an unclear status standing outside or inside some polling stations in Armenia’s second city of Gyumri. At one of them voting was clearly overseen and influenced by one young man who presented himself as a proxy of presidential candidate Paruyr Hayrikian. “Dear Vahan, please do not approach the polling booths,” a local election commission told the man after the journalist inquired about his activities.
Several other men stood by and looked on in the meantime. “I am the chief security guard of this school,” one of them claimed. He said he is making sure that “voters don’t beat up each other.”
Local observers agreed that despite such cases the latest presidential ballot was more trouble-free than the previous Armenian elections. “Unlike in the last presidential elections, things are quite calm and there are shortcomings in few places today,” Harutiun Hambardzumian, head of Armenia’s largest vote-monitoring organization, told reporters mid-way through the voting.
“The kind of fuss that was observed practically everywhere during the previous elections didn’t exist this time around. The atmosphere is not tense,” said Avetik Ishkhanian, a human rights campaigner also monitoring the contest. He pointed to the “lack of competition” in the race.
In Ishkhanian’s words, the fact that the election was effectively boycotted by several major opposition also meant that were no opposition proxies in many polling places. “This is a very important difference from the previous elections,” he said.