By Karine Kalantarian and Artem Chernamorian in Gyumri
A major Armenian opposition party supporting presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian accused the authorities on Monday of bribing and bullying its representatives in various-level election commissions in an effort to facilitate fraud in Wednesday’s run-off.
National Democratic Union (AZhM) leaders in Yerevan and Gyumri told RFE/RL that the party has serious difficulties trying to replace commission members appointed by them.
The AZhM is the only pro-Demirchian party which hold a seat in all nine-member electoral commissions overwhelmingly controlled by President Robert Kocharian and his allied parties. According to a senior party member, Vartuhi Ishkhanian, many AZhM-nominated officials have been under strong government pressure to turn a blind eye on vote irregularities.
“Many are scared,” she said. “There have also been instances of bribing. We have therefore decided to refresh commissions from our side, but have trouble doing that.”
Ishkhanian, who is also a member of an election commission in Yerevan’s Arabkir district, said the AZhM leadership is unable to contact many of its representatives in the lower-level precincts, something which is necessary for their replacement. She claimed that the party’s campaign coordinator in Arabkir, Anush Gevorgian, “disappeared” two days ago.
Party leaders in the northern city of Gyumri painted a similar picture. The chairman of the AZhM’s regional branch, Vahan Tumasian, claimed that opposition members are being squeezed out of local election bodies en masse. “The heads of election commissions are doing everything to get rid of opposition members,” Tumasian said, adding that many commissioners representing already cooperate with the authorities.
The AZhM leader, Vazgen Manukian, fared extremely poorly in the first round of the elections and now supports Demirchian. Sources close to him said the AZhM is now trying to replace its commissioners with members of Demirchian’s People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK). Under Armenian law, a party represented in the commissions can do so even on election day if it comes up with a “legitimate reason.”
The Demirchian campaign has already been hit hard by the arrests of dozens of its election proxies. They were sentenced to up to 15 days’ imprisonment for allegedly committing “hooligan acts” during unsanctioned opposition demonstrations that followed the first round. The crackdown has been condemned by international organizations such as the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The authorities began releasing the detainees on Saturday, ostensibly in response to an appeal from Catholicos Garegin II. The Armenian Justice Ministry spokesman, Ara Saghatelian, told RFE/RL that 75 of 86 jailed persons were set free by as of late Monday. He said the list of their names will be made public on Tuesday.