Groups of pro-government youths standing in or outside polling stations, keeping a watchful eye on voters and clearly influencing the process have been a fixture in Armenian elections and Sunday’s municipal polls in Yerevan were not an exception to this rule.
Their menacing presence, largely ignored by the police despite running counter to Armenia’s Electoral Code, could be observed in various parts of the city throughout the voting. As was the case in the previous elections, opposition activists accused them of bribing and intimidating voters.
The men commonly known as “neighborhood guys” mainly working for the ruling Republican Party (HHK) were again reluctant to talk to journalists. Some of them responded to questions from RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) with anger and even threats.
About a dozen such men rushed away from an RFE/RL correspondent when she approached them outside a polling station in Yerevan’s northern Nor Nork district. “Don’t film me or I’ll hit you in the head with this,” one of them said, pointing to his mobile phone.
“Put the camera away,” protested another young man.
Karen Karapetian, a proxy of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) at the local election commission, pleaded with the reporter to stay at the polling station for a while. “Your camera will scare them away,” he explained. “Or else, they will keep directing people.”
“Isn’t it clear in whose favor they are directing people? Of course not in the opposition’s but the ruling party’s favor,” he said.
There were clear indications of such pressure inside another polling station in Nor Nork. Several young men, who were neither proxies nor election officials, looked on as local residents cast ballots there in large numbers. “I’m waiting for my neighbors to vote so we can go home together,” one of them claimed before an HHK proxy there began filming the journalist.
Election observers dismissed such claims, saying that the men voted much earlier and are simply staying put in breach of the law.
Another young man, who refused to identify his status, gave guidance to an elderly woman outside the polling station moments later. “Granny, don’t talk to her,” he told the woman when she was approached by the journalist. “Whatever she says, don’t answer.”
Tension ran high within the multi-partisan commission that administered voting in that precinct. Suranuysh Petrosian, the commission’s chairwoman affiliated with the opposition HAK, accused one of its pro-government members, Anahit Barseghian, of helping government loyalists to carry out vote buying.
“I noticed that she kept a list [of voters,] marked the names of those voters who showed up and those who didn’t, and gradually passed that list on to Republican guys so that they bring in people,” claimed Petrosian. “When I tried to stop that she started screaming.”
“I had no lists,” insisted Barseghian. “I was just checking to see whether or not [residents of] two apartments came to vote.”
In neighboring Avan district, a middle-aged woman standing outside two adjacent polling places held what looked a list of voters. She hid the papers and hastily made her way into a nearby apartment block when asked to disclose their content.
“I won’t tell you what’s written there. No, it’s not a list,” the woman said after emerging from the building shortly afterwards. “You’re getting on my nerves. Why are you forcing me to smash your camera?” she added angrily.
In the southern Yerevan suburb of Noragyugh, RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) followed a commuter minibus that stopped by local houses, collected their residents one by one and drove them to a nearby polling station. A woman who escorted the dozen or so voters angrily denied telling them to vote for a particular party. “Shame on you,” she said before escorting the voters to another minibus.
The HHK was accused by its political opponents of busing allegedly bribed voters to polling stations throughout the day. The ruling party denied those allegations.