Legal experts from the Council of Europe met with leaders of Armenia’s parliamentary parties on Tuesday to discuss new legislation that could greatly influence the outcome of next year’s Armenian parliamentary elections.
The new Electoral Code drafted by the Armenian government and submitted to the council’s Venice Commission late last month has prompted serious concerns from opposition and civic groups. They point to the government’s continuing rejection of major safeguards against vote rigging that have long been championed by critics of President Serzh Sarkisian.
One of those safeguards is the idea of publicizing the names of voters who participated in an election. This, its advocates say, would preclude or at least expose multiple illegal voting by government loyalists, which was allegedly widespread in national elections held in the country over the past decade.
The Sarkisian administration and the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) have for years opposed the idea, saying that it would breach the constitutionally guaranteed secrecy of ballots. The Venice Commission has also spoken out against it in the past.
The issue topped the agenda of meetings held by the visiting Venice Commission experts with leaders of the opposition minority in the Armenian parliament as well as prominent civil rights campaigners. The latter suggested on Tuesday that the European experts no longer object to the proposed safeguard.
“They did not object to the publication of lists,” said Sona Ayvazian of the Armenian branch of Transparency International, who met the experts along with other civic activists late on Monday.
“In Armenia, there is social demand for the publication of those lists and everyone realizes that vote rigging stems, in large measure, from multiple voting,” Ayvazian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
The opposition leaders also voiced other concerns regarding the draft Electoral Code. In particular, Levon Zurabian, the parliamentary leader of the Armenian National Congress (HAK), said the authorities must also agree to mark voters’ fingers with indelible ink, install video cameras in all polling stations and ensure live online broadcasts of the voting and counting processes.
Zurabian also deplored a new and complex mechanism for electing Armenia’s next parliament envisaged by the draft Electoral Code. It supposedly provides for parliamentary elections held only on a party-list basis.
Critics claim, however, that under the proposed legislation half of the parliament seats will be contested under a system very similar to elections held in single-mandate constituencies where the ruling HHK has traditionally done well thanks to its control of government resources. Sarkisian and his party pledged to abolish those constituencies when they pushed through controversial changes to the Armenian constitution in a referendum held in December.
“Unless these [HAK] demands are fulfilled, the system of electoral fraud, which has for years prevented the expression of popular will, will remain intact in Armenia,” said Zurabian.
Boris Navasardian, the chairman of the Yerevan Press Club, shared Zurabian’s concerns regarding the new electoral system favored by the authorities. “If we maintain territorial districts and influence of local strongmen on electoral processes, it will be very hard to ensure clean elections,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Navasardian also deplored restrictions on the number of journalists and observers present in polling stations placed by the draft Electoral Code.
The Venice Commission will evaluate the code in a report expected to be released later this month or early next. Last month, a senior European Union official urged the authorities in Yerevan to “consult” with the Strasbourg-based commission and make sure that the code is also acceptable to the Armenian opposition.