Amid opposition allegations of serious fraud, Armenia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) said early on Monday that voters have backed sweeping constitutional changes which President Serzh Sarkisian’s political opponents claim could extend his rule.
The CEC said that with over 93 percent of ballots cast counted, 63.5 percent of participants of Sunday’s referendum voted for the changes envisaging the country’s transition to the parliamentary system of government after Sarkisian’s second presidential term ends in 2018.
The preliminary official results are certain to be rejected as fraudulent by Armenian opposition groups that have campaigned against the controversial constitutional reform. They alleged serious irregularities in and outside many polling stations throughout the day.
The opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) dismissed the first official figures shortly after the CEC began publishing them after midnight. Levon Zurabian, an HAK leader, said that in fact Armenians have overwhelmingly rejected the amendments drafted by an ad hoc presidential commission. He cited referendum results from dozens of precincts indicating resounding “No” votes.
Zurabian claimed that Sarkisian and the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) secured many of the “Yes” votes through ballot box stuffing, multiple voting and vote buying. In that regard, he also dismissed the CEC claim that almost 1.3 million people making up just over half of Armenia’s eligible voters cast ballots on Sunday. The official voter turnout is “not compatible with the country’s demography,” he said.
Zurabian and representatives of another major opposition party, Zharangutyun (Heritage), also accused government loyalists of disrupting vote counts in many other precincts where popular support for Sarkisian’s constitutional package proved weak. A Zharangutyun proxy claimed to have been beaten up in one of those precincts located just west of Yerevan.
The CEC, which is dominated by Sarkisian allies, as well as the HHK will reject the allegations. The CEC chairman, Tigran Mukuchian, challenged the opposition to present documentary evidence of fraud in writing as hundreds of opposition supporters rallied on Sunday night near the commission’s offices in downtown Yerevan.
The demonstration was organized by Zharangutyun and several other opposition groups aligned in the New Armenia Public Salvation Front. The alliance launched on Tuesday a campaign of street protests aimed at unseating Sarkisian. It has failed to pull large crowds.
The more moderate HAK and its allies will hold a rally in Yerevan’s Liberty Square on Monday. “We expect to see many people in Liberty Square,” Zurabian told a late-night news conference. Speaking before the CEC effectively gave victory to the “Yes” camp, he said the HAK’s further actions will depend on the official referendum results.
The referendum was monitored by several hundred observers deployed by Armenian civic groups in polling stations across the country. Many of them also reported serious irregularities.
By contrast, international vote-monitoring bodies like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe sent only a handful of representatives to Armenia. This might be connected with the fact that neither the United States nor the European Union has endorsed or voiced concerns over the constitutional reform.
Also, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission gave a largely positive assessment of Sarkisian’s constitutional amendments in September. The commission said they would mark a “further important step forward in the transition of Armenia towards democracy.”
The HAK, Zharangutyun and other reform opponents maintain that Sarkisian is only keen to stay in power in a different capacity after serving out his second and final term in 2018. In a bid to disprove such claims, Sarkisian said last year that he will not seek to become prime minister or parliament speaker if Armenia switches to the parliamentary system. However, he pointedly declined to reaffirm that pledge in televised remarks aired on Thursday.