Radical opposition groups campaigning for “regime change” in Armenia rallied hundreds of supporters and demanded President Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation on Sunday evening shortly after the polls closed in a constitutional referendum denounced by them as fraudulent.
“Our history hasn’t seen a more serious state crime and high treason than what happened today,” Raffi Hovannisian, a leader of the New Armenia Public Salvation Front, told the crowd that gathered in Yerevan’s Liberty Square, the scene of a nonstop sit-in launched by the opposition alliance on Tuesday.
Citing serious fraud alleged by opposition proxies, Hovannisian said the Central Election Commission (CEC) must declare the referendum on Sarkisian’s controversial constitutional changes null and void. He also demanded that Sarkisian step down and hand over power to an “interim government” that would hold snap elections.
Zhirayr Sefilian, another New Armenia leader, said the demonstration will continue through the night, urging more people to join it. “It’s going to be a long night,” he said.
Sefilian also said that the opposition alliance will continue its campaign despite failing to attract large crowds so far. “Maybe our failings and shortcomings explain this lack of [popular] mobilization,” he said. “We will rectify those shortcomings.”
The protesters then marched through the city center, escorted by an unusually large number of riot police clad in riot gear. The security forces did not allow them to approach the CEC building.
The CEC chairman, Tigran Mukuchian, dismissed the New Armenia demand when he spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatuyun.am) later in the evening. Mukuchian said the referendum can be invalidated only if the opposition bloc presents the CEC or its territorial divisions with evidence of large-scale fraud. “There is a legally defined procedure for submitting such applications,” he said.
Mukuchian also insisted that irregularities reported by the opposition and media were only “isolated cases” that did not have a major impact on the referendum.
The CEC released no nationwide referendum results as of midnight. It said only that 50.5 percent of Armenia’s 2.5 million eligible voters cast ballots, just enough to make the vote valid. The CEC put the voter turnout in Yerevan at only 46 percent. Turnout stood at below 40 percent in Gyumri and Vanadzor, the country’s second and third largest cities.
Predictably, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) said that the vote was largely free and fair even if some of its loyalists “paid lip service” to the government. “Naturally some irregularities may have happened,” the HHK spokesman, Eduard Sharmazanov, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “One, two or three cases [of fraud] should not be seen as a pattern.”
However, a leader of the Armenian National Congress (HAK), another major opposition force, denounced the authorities’ handling of the vote as “disgraceful.” “There were so many irregularities that we could barely keep track of them,” claimed Levon Zurabian.
The HAK is scheduled to hold a rally in Liberty Square on Monday. The party led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian has so far avoided joining the New Armenia campaign.