Voting began on Sunday in a referendum on controversial constitutional changes that would turn Armenia into a parliamentary republic after President Serzh Sarkisian completes his second and final term in office in 2018.
Sarkisian and his political allies say transition to the parliamentary system of government would facilitate the country’s democratization and help to address economic and security challenges facing it. Their political opponents insist, however, that the key aim of the constitutional reform is to enable Sarkisian to remain in power in a different capacity after 2018.
The Armenian constitution bars the president of the republic from seeking a third term. A package of constitutional amendments drafted by a presidential commission would not remove this restriction.
Sarkisian, senior members of his administration as well as Armenian opposition leaders cast ballots at various polling stations in Yerevan in the morning. “I will answer all questions after the voting is over,” Sarkisian told reporters at one of those polling stations. He refused to comment further.
Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian, who has led the ruling Republican Party’s pre-referendum “Yes” campaign, said he voted for Armenia’s “stable future and development.” “We have done everything to ensure that the referendum is free and fair and urged our teammates to be impartial,” he said.
Abrahamian also urged government loyalists not to “pay lip service” to the reform through vote irregularities. “I hope and our teammates will do everything to prevent violations,” he said.
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, whose Armenian National Congress (HAK) opposition has campaigned against the proposed changes, called for a high voter turnout. “The more real people -- I repeat, real people -- come out and vote, the more objective the referendum results will be,” he told journalists.
Another opposition leader, Raffi Hovannisian, demonstratively tore up his ballot before dropping it into a ballot box. Hovannisian’s Zharangutyun (Heritage) party is part of an opposition alliance currently holding nonstop street protests with the declared aim of toppling Sarkisian.
To pass, the amendments will have to be approved by the majority of referendum participants making up at least one-quarter of Armenia’s 2.5 million or so eligible voters. Sarkisian and his political allies will thus need to garner at least 625,000 “Yes” votes.
Opposition representatives alleged irregularities shortly after the start of voting. In particular, they claimed that groups of pro-governments voters living outside Yerevan are being bused to polling stations in the capital.
Hovsep Khurshudian, a Zharangutyun activist and a member of a precinct election commission in Yerevan, said several provincial residents and even ethnic Armenian citizens of Georgia attempted to vote there despite not being included on the precinct’s voter registers. “Citizens are handed false documents to be able to vote here,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
In another Yerevan precinct, an RFE/RL correspondent witnessed dozens of residents of Armenia’s central Kotayk province voting under the watchful eyes of a group of men who stood outside the polling station. They produced police documents allowing them to cast ballots there.
The suspicious practice prompted vehement protests from Zaruhi Postanjian, a Zharangutyun leader who monitored voting there. Postanjian said she will lodge a formal complaint with the police. But she also said, “It’s clear that the police are also involved in this fraud.”
Another RFE/RL TV crew saw scores of people with passports entering two “Yes” campaign offices in the city’s Arabkir district run by President Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). Many of them boarded minibuses and taxis and were driven in unknown directions afterwards.
The busing process was seemingly coordinated by young men holding sheets of paper with people’s names. Some of those men tried to confiscate an RFE/RL camera that filmed them. They were reined in by other, apparently more senior HHK activists.
Moments later, an RFE/RL reporter was persistently attacked by an elderly woman outside the same HHK office. “Get out of here,” shouted the woman. “Spit on your face. Don’t film. Don’t talk to people.”
“Guys, don’t talk to her. Don’t talk to her,” the woman said, turning to other voters who lined up outside the office.
The office workers refused to let the reporter, Anush Mkrtchian, in and answer her questions. One HHK activist, who identified herself as Toma, subsequently emerged from the officer and talked to her. She claimed that the ruling party is not buying votes and that her office is only handing out food to poor people for charitable purposes unrelated to the referendum.
Opposition representatives are certain to assert, however, that the voters entered the HHK offices to receive cash in return for voting for the constitutional changes. Vote buying has long been endemic in Armenia.
Later in the day, Prosecutor-General Gevorg Kostanian ordered the Armenian police to investigate the attack on Mkrtchian. The police did not immediately react to the order.