The three main challengers of the ruling Republican Party (HHK) accused the Armenian authorities of resorting to a “large-scale machination” and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the parliamentary elections just hours after the opening of the polls on Sunday.
The Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the Armenian National Congress (HAK) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) singled out reports that ink stamps put on voters’ passports routinely disappeared several minutes after they left polling stations.
The stamps are meant to prevent fraudulent multiple voting on election day. They were supposed to stay intact for at least 12 hours. News reports and anecdotal evidence suggested that this was not the case in at least some parts of the country. Precinct-level election commissions were reportedly allowed to change their stamp ink in the afternoon.
In a joint statement issued by their Inter-Party Center for Public Oversight of the Elections, the three political forces spoke of a “process jeopardizing the legality of the elections.” Their senior representatives, including HAK leader Levon Ter-Petrosian, reiterated those concerns at a joint news conference held about four hours before voting drew to a close.
Ter-Petrosian went as far as to claim that the elections can already be considered undemocratic. “I wanted to be a bit optimistic about these elections in view of the new approaches by these [three] political forces,” he said. “But unfortunately starting from this morning the course of the elections made me convinced that I was right to repeatedly assert that every election in Armenia is worse than the previous one.”
BHK and Dashnaktsutyun leaders were more cautious in their evaluations, however. They and the HAK were expected to try to formulate a common official position on the election conduct only after the closure of the polls at 8 p.m.
The chairman of the Central Election Commission (CEC), Tigran Mukuchian, dismissed the concerns over the stamps at a morning news conference. “The disappearance of ink is a natural chemical process and even air temperature can affect it,” he said.
Mukuchian suggested that the seals may have quickly become invisible because of their “incorrect use” by local election officials. He said the latter should shake ink containers before putting voting stamps on passports.
But speaking at the news conference with Ter-Petrosian, Vartan Oskanian, a senior BHK member, said he voted after Mukuchian’s public remarks and his passport stamp was gone without a trace within minutes. “So it appears that this falsification has not been eliminated and is continuing,” Oskanian said.
“I hope nobody is naïve to think that the CEC didn’t test that ink and didn’t see its flaws beforehand,” said Levon Zurabian, a senior HAK figure who also attended the news conference. “It is clear to us that that was a premeditated, systematic and coordinated illegal practice aimed at ensuring multiple voting by Republican Party falsifiers,” he charged.
In its statement, the Inter-Party Center also claimed that large numbers of voters bribed by government loyalist were bused to polling stations across the country during the first two hours of voting.
An RFE/RL correspondent was attacked by a young man while videotaping busloads of people outside a polling station in Yerevan’s southern Erebuni district. “Will you film me?” the man said before striking down her camera.
The journalist, Elina Chilingarian, reported the incident to the police.
“We’ve brought people here,” the driver of a minibus parked outside the polling station told her moments before the assault. The driver and two middle-aged women sitting in the minibus reluctantly spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) as they waited for other passengers casting ballots.
“We’ve just come to vote,” one of the women said. “This is my son’s minibus. What’s wrong with him bringing me here?”
“We live in a remote neighborhood. Should we have come here on foot?” said the other woman.
Busing of people was also reported during Armenia’s last parliamentary and presidential elections. Opposition leaders portray it as evidence of vote buying. The HHK has always denied bribing voters, however.
The opposition HAK and the nominally governing BHK also alleged on Sunday afternoon violent attacks on their proxies at several rural precincts in the northeastern Gegharkunik. Koryun Mherian, the HAK branch head in the village of Zolakar, said the village mayor and his loyalists burst into the three local polling stations to rig the ballot.
“They beat up our guys and BHK guys, took away their cameras and started openly marking ballots and stuffing them [ballot boxes,]” Mherian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service by phone. “The guys had to flee.”
A regional BHK chapter made similar allegations in a written statement. It said BHK proxies were also forced out of polling stations in two nearby villages.
However, the chairman of the local district election commission, Saro Ghazarian, denied any violence when contacted by RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “I went to Zolakar with the local police department chief,” he said. “There were no complaints from any commission member or proxy.”
Meanwhile, BHK leader Gagik Tsarukian downplayed the alleged irregularities and described the voting process as “normal” as he voted in his village of Arinj just north of Yerevan. “Shortcomings are inevitable but the key thing is that everything is immediately resolved,” he told journalists at a polling station located in a village kindergarten bearing his mother Roza Tsarukian’s name.
One of Tsarukian’s top aides, Naira Zohrabian, alleged “blatant irregularities” when she spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service earlier in the day.
The BHK itself faced embarrassing allegations, including by online media outlets, of vote buying throughout the day. One of its activists, identified as Armen Matevosian, was arrested in Yerevan’s Arabkir district in the afternoon. State prosecutors said he had 508,000 drams ($1,300) in cash and a notebook with “entries about various citizens.”
The spokeswoman for the Office of the Prosecutor-General, Sona Truzian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that two Arabkir residents acknowledged taking 35,000 drams and 15,000 drams respectively from Matevosian in return for a pledge that they and their family members will vote for Tsarukian’s party. “There is enough factual evidence now to assert that those individuals were paid vote bribes,” Truzian said.
In a separate criminal case, the head of a BHK campaign office in another Yerevan community, Shengavit, was accused of paying a local couple 20,000 drams to vote for the party and its individual candidate running in the local single-mandate constituency. The BHK official was not identified and detained, though.
The BHK leadership did not immediately react to the criminal proceedings. But Ter-Petrosian, who had for years accused the BHK of being an integral part of the ruling “kleptocratic” regime, downplayed those cases as an example of selective justice.
“The law must be enforced against everyone equally,” the visibly annoyed opposition leader told journalists. “You known how much in vote bribes the Republicans have handed out but nobody has been arrested and punished.”