By Heghine Buniatian and Anna Saghabalian
Armenia’s largest election-monitoring organization condemned on Tuesday the government’s handling of the weekend constitutional referendum, citing widespread fraud reported by its observers.
“Serious violations of the electoral process, illegal voting and especially ballot box stuffing registered on November 27 … do not allow us to recognize the referendum on amendments to Armenia’s constitution as democratic and meeting international standards,” the independent group called It’s Your Choice concluded in a report.
The 12-page report details numerous irregularities that were reported by some 4,000 observers deployed by It’s Your Choice on voting day. Its chairman, Harutiun Hambartsumian, said they visited nearly 60 percent of the polling stations across Armenia.
“Despite the seemingly calm and peaceful atmosphere that reigned at the polling stations, most of our observers worked in quite tense and complicated conditions,” the report said, adding that at least ten of them were illegally prevented by election officials from following the voting.
According to Hambartsumian, one of his observers was pelted with a stone outside a Yerevan polling station and needed hospitalization after refusing to show the head of the local election commission his written notes.
The group claimed that ballot box stuffing was a key reason for an unusually high voter turnout reported by the Armenian authorities. “There was more ballot stuffing on November 27 than during the presidential elections of 2003,” Hambartsumian charged at a news conference. He said in one polling station in Yerevan the number of ballots cast was ten times higher than the number of voters counted by It’s Your Choice observers.
“Of course the violations affected the referendum outcome,” added Hambartsumian. “To what extent? Let the Central Election Commission determine that.”
The CEC upheld on Tuesday the preliminary official results of the vote that claim an overwhelming popular endorsement of the Western-backed constitutional reform. According to its final vote tally, as many as 1.5 million Armenians, or 65.7% percent of eligible voters, took part in the referendum and over 93 percent of them voted for the amendments drafted by President Robert Kocharian and his governing coalition.
“I congratulate all of us in connection with the adopted decision,” Garegin Azarian, the CEC chairman, told fellow members of the Kocharian-controlled body after signing its final vote protocol.
“We will analyze shortcomings registered during the vote and draw conclusions,” Azarian told reporters. “If we identify concrete facts [of electoral fraud], they will definitely be presented to the Prosecutor’s Office, as we did after the local elections.”
Two of the CEC’s nine members representing the opposition refused to endorse the results, dismissing them as fraudulent. “I have been to polling stations and kept track of voter activity,” one of them, Felix Khachatrian, told RFE/RL. “That as well as my conversations with people make me believe that more than one million votes were stolen in the process.”
“There have been no elections like this in Armenia before,” added Khachatrian. “They did whatever they wanted.”