In a move which its opposition minority said will facilitate fraud in the upcoming constitutional referendum, the Armenian parliament eased on Thursday legal requirements for voter identification in polling stations.
Voters in Armenia have until now had to show election officials their passports before being able to cast ballots in elections and referendums. Under a bill approved by the National Assembly in the first reading, those of them who do not have passports would be allowed to provide only plastic ID cards that have been introduced in Armenia in recent years.
According to government estimates, some 180,000 voting-age Armenians hold only this kind of IDs. Lawmakers from the ruling Republican Party (HHK), who have drafted the bill, say that they too should be able to vote.
Opposition deputies see ulterior motives behind the measure, saying that the HHK is simply keen to facilitate multiple voting by its loyalists in the December 6 referendum on President Serzh Sarkisian’s controversial constitutional changes. They say that Armenia’s inflated voter registers are a fertile ground for such fraud.
One major safeguard against multiple voting in Armenia has been a legal requirement that election officials must put ink stamps on voters’ passports at polling stations. This requirement will not apply to the plastic IDs. Opposition forces campaigning against the constitutional reform say this is the reason why the ruling party wants to ease the voter identification rules.
“The electoral system is being changed radically 40 days before the referendum,” Nikol Pashinian, an outspoken opposition deputy, said during heated parliamentary debates on the HHK bill held this weeks. “Those stamps will not apply to 180,000 voters.”
The parliament passed the bill by 81 votes to 16, with 14 abstentions. Leaders of its pro-government majority denied the opposition allegations about the falsification of the upcoming referendum planned by the Sarkisian administration.
“I remain of the opinion that the existing Electoral Code is enough for us … to hold free, fair and transparent elections,” said Hovannes Sahakian, one of the authors of the controversial legislation.
The parliament majority also rejected a number of opposition proposals aimed at complicating fraudulent voting with ID cards. In particular, opposition lawmakers proposed that voters have their fingers marked with indelible ink after casting ballots. They claimed that the majority leaders’ rejection of the idea is a further indication that the authorities plan to rig the referendum.
The amendments to the Armenian constitution drafted by a presidential commission envisage the country’s transformation into a parliamentary republic after Sarkisian completes his second and final presidential term in 2018. Critics say that their main purpose is to enable him to retain the reins of power in a different capacity.
To pass, the amendments will have to be approved by the majority of referendum participants making up at least one-quarter of Armenia’s 2.5 million or so eligible voters. Sarkisian and his political allies will thus need to garner at least 620,000 votes.