By Ruzanna Stepanian, Hrach Melkumian and Narek Galstian
The Armenian opposition rejected as fraudulent preliminary official results of Sunday’s constitutional referendum, which showed a surprisingly high voter turnout despite a visible lack of public interest in the vote not monitored by a large number of Western observers.
According to the Central Election Commission (CEC), almost 64 percent of the country’s 2.3 million eligible voters took part in the vote -- more than enough for it to be considered valid. The CEC did not say, as of late evening, how many of them voted for President Robert Kocharian’s draft amendments to the Armenian constitution.
But with the opposition having urged supporters to boycott the referendum, the CEC was widely expected to report a crushing “yes” vote. According to an “exit poll” cited by the Kocharian-controlled Public Television, 88 percent of referendum participants endorsed the Western-backed amendments. At least 767,000 votes were needed for the amendments to be deemed passed.
According to the CEC, more Armenians took part in the referendum than in the tightly contested second round of the 2003 presidential election. However, there was ample anecdotal evidence to the contrary, with polling stations across the country unusually empty throughout Sunday.
Opposition leaders were quick to denounce the official figures, saying that they were the result of “unprecedented” falsifications. Some of them rallied more than a thousand people in Yerevan late on Sunday and urged supporters to take to the streets in larger numbers on Monday. “The authorities will not digest the referendum,” said Aram Sarkisian of the radical Hanrapetutyun party.
A coalition of two dozen opposition parties that jointly campaigned against the amendments and observed the vote claimed that the actual turnout was below 17 percent. “Polling stations in Armenia have never been so empty before,” National Democratic Union (AZhM) leader Vazgen Manukian said at a late-night joint news conference with Sarkisian and two other prominent oppositionists.
But leaders of Kocharian’s governing coalition who led the campaign for a “yes” vote flatly denied the fraud charges. One of them, deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, insisted that the CEC figures are trustworthy. “I believe the referendum showed that popular interest in this process was great,” he told journalists. “This turnout also showed that efforts to disrupt the process completely failed.”
The opposition Artarutyun bloc, of which Hanrapetutyun and the AZhM are members, and the National Unity Party (AMK) effectively withdrew their representatives from the election commissions but claimed to have closely monitored the vote with thousands of observers. Artarutyun leaders said state prosecutors intimidated their election officials refusing to participate in the conduct of the referendum.
“Throughout yesterday opposition members of the commissions were harassed en masse all over the republic,” alleged Felix Khachatrian, a CEC member representing Artarutyun.
Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian warned on Saturday that Khachatrian and other commission members from the opposition could face criminal proceedings for boycotting the process. Still, Artarutyun representatives were absent from most polling stations visited by RFE/RL the next day. It proved more difficult to verify the absence of AMK representatives.
The AMK leader, Artashes Geghamian, cried foul shortly after the polls opened at 8 a.m. local time, alleging that his observers were forcibly evicted from polling stations in Vartenis, a town in the northeastern Gegharkunik region. He also said voting there began with ballot boxes already filled with ballots.
But the chairman of the Vartenis electoral district, Karmen Madoyan, denied the charges. “There were no such incidents,” he told RFE/RL. “The oppositionists may say different things, but they have no concrete facts.”
However, opposition observers could be found only in one of the five local precincts. Election officials said they went away willingly. But a local Artarutyun activist, Varuzhan Tovmasian, claimed the opposite. “Guys from the Yerkrapah [Union of Karabakh war veterans] war bullied the observers and they all withdrew,” he said. “There are now opposition representatives at the polling stations in Vartenis.”
Sarkisian’s Hanrapetutyun party likewise said it recalled its proxies from Vartenis and Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri. “The atmosphere there was very tense. There were scuffles and verbal abuse,” Artak Zeynalian, a senior party member, told reporters.
For its part, Manukian’s AZhM said one of its female observers fled a Yerevan precinct after an argument with two dozen men who were allegedly engaged in ballot box stuffing. It was “dangerous” for her to stay there after that, said an AZhM spokesman.
Manukian, Sarkisian and another radical oppositionist, Aram Karapetian, reaffirmed their plans to launch a campaign of sustained street protests which they hope will lead to regime change. They admitted that success of the effort depends on the number of people who will attend those rallies. “We need to have a critical mass [of supporters],” said Sarkisian.
Sarkisian would not be drawn on what exactly the opposition plans to do in the coming days, saying only that it will avoid violent methods of political struggle. He also chided Geghamian and Artarutyun’s top leader Stepan Demirchian for declining so far to endorse the planned attempt at a “democratic revolution” in Armenia. “A real oppositionist must be with the people,” he said.
(Photolur photo: Sarkisian addressing a rally in Yerevan.)