By Astghik Bedevian, Ruzanna Stepanian, Ruben Meloyan, Irina Hovannisian, and Emil Danielyan
Voting in Armenia’s tense parliamentary elections ended on Saturday evening amid opposition allegations of massive vote buying by the governing Republican Party (HHK) and the pro-presidential Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK).
The allegations were made throughout the day by opposition leaders, proxies of opposition parties, and non-governmental organizations monitoring the elections. There were numerous reports of busloads of people transported to polling stations across the country by members of the two main pro-establishment parties. RFE/RL correspondents witnessed two such instances in Yerevan.
“Vote bribes are being distributed on a terrible scale. We keep receiving reports about widespread vote buying,” Stepan Demirchian, the leader of the opposition People’s Party of Armenia, told RFE/RL shortly before the closure of the polls.
The claims were echoed by Aram Karapetian, the leader of another, more radical opposition party, Nor Zhamanakner. “According to our information, the Prosperous Armenia Party is handing out 25,000-dram bribes in some places, while the Republican Party is handing out 15,000 drams ($42) all over the country,” claimed Karapetian.
The HHK brushed aside the allegations. “The Republican Party does not need to resort to falsifications or give vote bribes,” the party spokesman, Eduard Sharmazanov, said. “We are the force which is making sure that the elections are free, fair and transparent.”
There was no immediate reaction to the accusations from the BHK.
Although voting appeared to have proceeded peacefully in most of about 2,000 polling stations across Armenia, tension was palpable in some of the precincts visited by RFE/RL correspondents.
“On the whole, the elections are going well. I don’t think anybody here lacks trust in the process,” said Sarkis Alaverdian, chairman of a precinct commission in Yerevan’s northern Arabkir district who is affiliated with another governing party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.
But Seda Melikian, a proxy for the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, disagreed. “Elections are normal only on surface,” she said. “They are transporting selected voters here. They are mostly disabled and old people who claim to be unable to vote on their own and are ‘helped’ by the people who have brought them here.”
Melikian pointed to several minibuses parked outside the polling station. Also, groups of young men could be seen standing there in violation of a legal ban on the presence of unauthorized persons within a 50-meter radius of polling stations. HHK and BHK representatives there denied any wrongdoing, however.
An opposition proxy in another Arabkir precinct was forced by police officers to leave the polling station after an argument with the local commission chairwoman, Alvard Tadevosian. The latter claimed that the proxy “created tension” and interfered with the commission’s work.
Tension ran high in Byurakan, a big village in the central Aragatsotn district which is part of Armenia’s electoral district No. 14. Masis Malkhasian, the brother and proxy of a jailed opposition activist running for parliament there, publicly argued with village Mayor Hrach Avagian, accusing him of buying votes for the HHK en masse.
“He is personally handing out cash to support the Republicans, while local ‘good fellows’ work for Prosperous Armenia,” Malkhasian complained to RFE/RL. “Please report that.”
“I just distributed aid to the people,” replied Avagian.
Polling in Byurakan turned chaotic at one point as the local polling station became overcrowded and the secrecy of the ballot was breached, with people openly voting in groups. An RFE/RL correspondent was forced by the precinct commission chairman, Avetik Soghomonian, to leave the station after wondering why he is not stepping in.
“You are interfering with our work,” said Soghomonian. “People cluster around you and disrupt the process.”
Also crying foul was Grisha Virabian, a maverick opposition candidate in another electoral district encompassing the southern town of Artashat and more than 20 nearby villages. He was running against Henrik “Jonik” Abrahamian, an incumbent wealthy parliamentarian and a brother of the influential Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian. The area is known as the Abrahamian brothers’ exclusive zone of influence.
“The elections are over,” Virabian told RFE/RL in the afternoon, accusing his rival of bribing and intimidating local people. He alleged that two of his proxies were briefly “taken hostage” by Abrahamian supporters after trying to prevent ballot box stuffing in the local village of Mkhchian. They were set free after surrendering most of the “intercepted” ballots, Virabian added, showing two crumpled ballots marked for Abrahamian.
However, the chairman of the Mkhchian election commission, denied the allegations, saying that there was only one “minor incident” in his polling station. “One person tried to vote in place of his wife, but we prevented him doing that,” he said.
“Henrik Abrahamian is very respected in the village,” added Taroyan. “He helps all villagers. There is no way even one or two people will vote against him. The whole village is voting for him.”
Taroyan also played down the clearly unlawful presence of dozens of Abrahamian supporters in his polling station. “They are just sitting here,” he said. “What can we do? If necessary, we can order them away.”
Abrahamian, for his part, denied handing out vote bribes, saying that he has only “helped” many people in the Artashat area. Speaking to RFE/RL in his Artashat office, the businessman affiliated with the HHK proudly showed dozens of requests for financial and humanitarian sent to him by local residents recent in recent weeks. Each of those letters contained an inscription by Abrahamian ordering aides to pay applicants between 5,000 and 50,000 drams ($140).
“The elections are proceeding honestly,” concluded Abrahamian.
(Photolur photo: Voters bused to a polling station in Yerevan.)