By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Voting began on Sunday in Armenia’s tense constitutional referendum, with President Robert Kocharian pledging to “respect” any outcome of the ballot which his political opponents are using to try to force him into resignation.
Kocharian said the referendum will be free and fair but refused to predict its results after voting for his draft constitutional amendments at a polling station in central Yerevan.
“First of all, I expect that there will be a well-organized electoral process,” he told reporters. “I don’t want to predict the results. Let’s wait until they start counting ballots after 8 p.m.”
“Until now I haven’t even taken interest in how it is going,” he said, downplaying his involvement in the electoral process boycotted by the Armenian opposition.
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian was also reserved in his comments as he visited the same polling station shortly afterwards. “I expect our people, our society to express their opinion,” he said. “As for what exactly I expect, I will talk about that tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and after that.”
Kocharian’s and his governing coalition’s constitutional package needs the backing of at least one third of Armenia’s 2.3 million eligible voters. High turnout is therefore essential for the success of their constitutional reform. That also explains why the opposition decided to call for a popular boycott of the vote.
According to the Central Election Commission (CEC), more than 200,000 Armenians already took part in the referendum as of midday local time. It was not clear whether most of them voted in Yerevan or other parts of the country. Several polling stations in the Armenian capital visited by journalists appeared deserted and quiet in the morning. Still, there were already hundreds of ballots cast there.
Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, whose Orinats Yerkir Party co-sponsored the amendments, described the reported turnout as “satisfactory” after casting his ballot in another Yerevan precinct. “I am optimistic and think that our people have learned more about the constitution in the last two months than during the previous 15 years,” he told journalists.
However, the opposition already cried foul in the morning, with Artashes Geghamian’s National Unity Party (AMK) alleging mass irregularities in the southeastern Vartenis district. The AMK claimed that many ballot boxes there already contained marked ballots when the polls opened at 8 a.m.
But Prime Minister Andranik Markarian insisted that the Armenian authorities do not need to rig the referendum in order to pass the amendments. “The process and the laws are such that members of the election commissions will not resort to actions entailing criminal liability,” he said.
The draft amendments aim to curtail sweeping powers enjoyed by the Armenian president and strengthen the parliament and the local courts. The authorities in Yerevan as well as the U.S. and European governments say their passage would speed up political reform in Armenia. But opposition leaders claim the opposite.
“Today the people of Armenia are facing a choice: to have a more balanced structure of state governance or retain the strong presidential authority envisaged by the current constitution,” said Kocharian. “It’s a very clear pattern. I will undoubtedly respect both choices.”
Most of the proposed constitutional changes, if adopted, will take effect after the next parliamentary elections due in 2007, meaning that their impact on Kocharian’s second term in office, which ends in 2008, would be minimal. Sarkisian, his closest associate and possible successor, is far more likely to be affected by them. However, the latter largely avoided public involvement in the pre-referendum campaign.
“I think I wasn’t passive,” explained the influential defense chief. “I expressed my opinion long ago. I simply didn’t find it necessary to participate [in the campaign] very actively because many members of our society already actively participated, while I had other things to do.”
Sarkisian also shrugged off opposition efforts to use the vote for mounting a fresh campaign of street protests aimed at toppling the ruling regime. He poured scorn on Raffi Hovannisian, a former foreign minister and an increasingly active opposition leader, for failing to pull a large crowd at his first-ever Yerevan rally held on Friday.
“If I called a rally, went to a square and at least a thousand people failed to turn up, I would behave in a different fashion,” said Sarkisian. “I wouldn’t commit suicide, but I would be ashamed of looking anyone in the eyes. If 50 persons fail to gather a thousand people, what confrontation are they talking about?”