Members of Armenia’s opposition on Monday criticized the government for promptly submitting draft amendments to the country’s electoral code to legal experts of a Council of Europe body for examination without prior public debate.
Levon Zurabian, the parliamentary leader of the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) party, claimed that by sending the draft to the Venice Commission ahead of discussions the Armenian authorities seek to get some sort of “approval” for their preliminary document “after which they won’t consider making any concessions to the opposition or civil society [in the matter of the amendments].”
“This is their tactic that once again shows that they are dishonest and fraudulent and that they plan to rig elections again,” the oppositionist charged.
The need for changes in Armenia’s electoral laws emerged after the approval in last December’s disputed referendum of sweeping amendments to the Constitution envisaging the country’s switch to a parliamentary form of government.
The HAK and some other opposition groups campaigned against the controversial changes to the Constitution initiated by President Serzh Sarkisian, claiming that this way the incumbent head of state sought to ensure his continued political clout as leader of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) even after his second and final term in office expired in 2018.
Sarkisian initially pledged not to seek a top government post should the reform be carried out, while advocates of the changes also insisted that their primary goal was to promote Armenia’s further democratization. Sarkisian, however, was less categorical about the possibility of his taking the office of a powerful prime minister after stepping down as president in about two years’ time.
Leading Western nations and international organizations monitoring the December vote described the process of drafting a new set of electoral laws as vital to ensuring a free and fair parliamentary vote in 2017 that will form Armenia’s next government. Therefore, they called for broader involvement of the opposition and civil society in the drafting and discussion of the relevant legislation.
In his public speeches President Sarkisian, too, called for a broad-based effort on amending the electoral code, setting the deadline for submitting its draft to the parliament on March 1. He also said that the passage of the draft electoral laws through the HHK-dominated parliament should take place by June, at least a year before the vote.
Armenia - Human rights activist Artur Sakunts in Azatutyun TV's studio, Yerevan, 8Dec, 2015
Speaking at a public discussion organized for political parties and nongovernmental organizations today, head of the Vanadzor-based office of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Artur Sakunts accused the government of going back on their pledge to hold open discussions following recommendations by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
“We can state now that the authorities do not comply with the key recommendation of the OSCE/ODIHR on ensuring an inclusive process,” he said.
Earlier, the HAK and a number of other opposition groups insisted on a number of anti-fraud safeguards to be included in the new electoral code. They singled out a measure that has long been championed by the Armenian opposition: post-election publication of the names of voters who cast ballots. Opposition leaders as well as many civic activists believe that this would practically preclude multiple voting by government loyalists, one of the most frequent forms of electoral fraud in the country. President Sarkisian’s administration and the HHK have for years opposed the idea, saying that it would breach the constitutionally guaranteed secrecy of ballots. Government representatives working on the current draft have already indicated the unacceptability of the proposal.
Meanwhile, leading human rights campaigner Sakunts also expressed fears that despite the formal switch to an all-proportional voting system, the new electoral code will eventually contain certain elements that will make it possible for odious local strongmen not campaigning along political lines to get into parliament.
The presence in parliament of dozens of such lawmakers elected from single-seat constituencies today has long been criticized by the opposition.
“That would make it the most disgraceful electoral code as by name it will be a proportional system but in essence it will be a majoritiarian one,” Sakunts said.
Invited HHK members did not attend today’s public discussion dealing with electoral code changes.