Amid opposition allegations of serious fraud planned in Armenia’s upcoming constitutional referendum, the National Assembly passed in the final reading on Wednesday a bill that eases legal requirements for voter identification in polling stations.
Voters in Armenia have until now had to show election officials their national passports before being able to cast ballots in elections and referendums. Under the controversial bill, those of them who do not have passports would be allowed to produce only plastic ID cards introduced in Armenia in recent years.
According to government estimates, over 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 leaders believe, however, that the real purpose of the measure is to facilitate multiple voting by government supporters in the December 6 referendum on President Serzh Sarkisian’s sweeping constitutional amendments. They say that Armenia’s inflated voter registers are a fertile ground for such fraud.
The HHK-controlled parliament dismissed these allegations when it pushed through the bill in the first reading after several days of heated debates late last month. It made only minor concessions to the opposition forces resisting the constitutional reform before finally approving the new voter requirements by 74 votes to 13, with 18 abstentions.
“A constitutional right of 183,000 citizens of the Republic of Armenia has been restored,” Gagik Melikian, a senior HHK deputy, declared after the voted.
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.
The parliament majority has rejected an opposition proposal to require election officials mark voters’ fingers with indelible ink. Its leaders say that such a procedure would not guard against fraud. One of them, Hovannes Sahakian, also claimed during Tuesday’s final parliamentary debate on the issue that the inking is used only in “backward countries.”
Levon Zurabian, the parliamentary leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), reiterated that voting with ID cards will “eliminate mechanisms for controlling multiple voting.” “This is shattering the legitimacy of the referendum,” he charged.
Also voting against the bill was the parliamentary faction of the Orinats Yerkir party, until recently a member of Sarkisian’s governing coalition. “After the elimination of these oversight mechanisms, there can be no free and fair vote, and the referendum will take place with blatant falsifications,” said Heghine Bisharian, an Orinats Yerkir leader.
However, Eduard Sharmazanov, the HHK’s chief spokesman and a deputy parliament speaker, insisted on Wednesday that the Armenian authorities have no plans to rig the referendum results. “Our objective is to ensure that the constitutional referendum is held in accordance with democratic standards,” he told reporters. “We don’t need a rigged referendum.”
“If we have a quality referendum, we will get a reformed constitution. If we don’t, that reformed constitution won’t be worth a penny,” added Sharmazanov.
The HAK and its opposition allies claim that the constitutional changes are vital for Sarkisian’s political future and that he will therefore do everything to enact them.