By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Voting began on Sunday in Armenia’s tightly-contested parliamentary elections and constitutional referendum amid lingering concerns about a repeat of serious irregularities that marred the recent presidential vote.
President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, looking to retain their control of the Armenian parliament, pledged to minimize possible electoral fraud. However, the country’s main opposition alliance and some pro-Kocharian parties said they are already getting reports of major violations of the election law.
“We must avoid possible violations,” Kocharian told reporters after casting his ballots at a polling station in central Yerevan. “We must do everything to make sure that there are few problems.”
Markarian, whose Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) is a top contender, also sounded optimistic about the proper conduct of the elections.
But those assurances were brushed aside by Stepan Demirchian, the leader of the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) bloc. Speaking to reporters three hours after the opening of polls, Demirchian said Artarutyun’s campaign headquarters is already receiving fraud reports from its proxies.
“It would be naïve to think that these authorities can organize elections without violations,” he said. “But we are going to fight.”
Also ringing alarm bells was the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), an influential party supporting Kocharian. The Dashnaktsutyun campaign told RFE/RL that its proxies have registered instances of “open voting” in about a dozen rural constituencies across Armenia. Party officials also claimed that army conscripts stationed in the eastern Gegharkunik province marked their ballots with green ink so that their commanders can later verify that they voted for the “right candidates.”
Dashnaktsutyun, which is represented in Markarian’s cabinet, has mounted a serious challenge against the HHK and hopes to considerably strengthen its presence in Armenia’s leadership. The Republicans, on the other hand, hope to retain their unofficial status of the number one “party of power” by capitalizing on their grip on many government structures. However, some opinion polls conducted in the run-up to the elections showed that they lack the popularity to so that.
Both Dashnaktsutyun and the HHK face a common pro-establishment rival: the Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party of the 34-year-old lawmaker Artur Baghdasarian. Orinats Yerkir has run a well-funded and successful campaign with an essentially opposition platform and rhetoric. The centrist party, which has built strong grassroots structures in recent years, has ranked second after Demirchian’s Artarutyun in most opinion polls.
Kocharian, meanwhile, reiterated on Sunday that he will likely form a coalition government comprising several pro-presidential parties. He declined to name the party for which he voted.
“It’s one of those parties witch which I have cooperated and whose support I enjoy,” he said.
Kocharian also ruled out the opposition’s inclusion in the next Armenian government. “The opposition can not be in the coalition.”
Demirchian, for his part, reaffirmed his confidence in Artarutyun’s victory. “I consider our chances very good,” he said. “In the event of more or less fair elections, I am confident that the Artarutyun alliance will win.”
Demirchian also acknowledged that he did not engender as much popular enthusiasm as he did during the disputed presidential election which he claims to have won. “People are disappointed and I think that the voter turnout will not be as high as it was during the presidential election,” he said. “People have lost faith in the electoral process.”
The turnout was indeed visibly lower. According to the Central Election Commission, only 5 percent of about 2.4 eligible voters went to the polls during the first three hours of voting.
The opposition is concerned that many of those who voted for Demirchian in the presidential race and feel that he was robbed of victory and will not bother vote this time. Skepticism about the freedom and fairness of the elections appeared to ran high even among those who went to the polling stations. Derenik Arshakian, an electricity company employee, said a clean vote is “almost impossible.”
“If we are not active, they will eat us,” he said. “We must reach civilization little by little. This is a necessary phase.”
“I never lose hope,” said another voter, retired army Colonel Hakob Mnatsakanian.
Armenians are also expressing their opinion on a vast package of amendments to their constitution proposed by Kocharian. The issue has been thoroughly ignored by virtually all contenders during the election campaign. Kocharian himself has not campaigned for the passage of the draft amendments rejected by the opposition. He admitted that it will be “very difficult” for him to secure their approval by the majority of voters.