Armenia’s government will open negotiations on Wednesday with leading opposition parties and civil society members on new legislation that could greatly influence the conduct and outcome of next year’s parliamentary elections.
The talks initiated by one of those parties, the Armenian National Congress (HAK), will center on a controversial Electoral Code that was drafted by the government last month.
The HAK, other opposition parties represented in parliament as well as non-partisan groups involved in civil rights advocacy have strongly criticized the code, saying that it contains no major safeguards against chronic vote rigging. Virtually all of them have jointly put forward several amendments which they say would complicate fraud in the elections due in April or May 2017.
The most important of those amendments calls for a post-election publication of the names of those voters who went to the polls. This, coupled with mandatory inking of voters’ fingers demanded by the opposition, is meant to preclude multiple voting by government loyalists. The government and President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) have opposed these proposed safeguards until now.
Levon Zurabian, the HAK’s parliamentary leader, insisted on Tuesday that the Sarkisian administration may be ready to make major concessions to the opposition and civic groups. “The people and the international community are sick and tired of our vote falsifications,” said Zurabian. They both want the authorities to make “radical changes” in the draft Electoral Code, he claimed.
Hovannes Sahakian, a senior lawmaker from the ruling HHK, refused to be drawn on possible concessions to the opposition. He said only that the authorities are ready to discuss any proposal during the upcoming talks.
Sahakian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that the presidential camp will be represented in the talks by Davit Harutiunian, the chief of the government staff and main author of the code, and Justice Minister Arpine Hovannisian.
The opposition minority in the Armenian parliament will be represented by parliamentary leaders of the HAK and the Prosperous Armenia, Orinats Yerkir and Zharangutyun parties. Six other individuals have been chosen to negotiate on behalf of the civic groups.
Zurabian said he believes that both sides should set a two-week time frame for the talks. He also stressed that the forces critical of the government should consider launching joint street protests if the talks end failure.
Meanwhile, Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan, circulated on Tuesday a set of his own proposals regarding the Electoral Code. He avoided explicitly backing any of the key opposition demands.
“His stance on this issue is fuzzy,” complained Aram Manukian, another HAK lawmaker. “There is no clarity at all.”
“I urge the human rights defender to clearly express his view,” added Manukian.
Zaruhi Postanjian, a Zharangutyun parliamentarian, criticized Tatoyan in stronger terms, singling out his ambiguous stance on the disclosure of voter lists. “He does not differ [from the government] in any way,” she claimed. “He repeats Davit Harutiunian’s views.”
In Sahakian’s words, the ombudsman’s proposals should also be discussed during the multi-party talks.
With Armenia currently switching to the parliamentary system of government in line with a recent constitutional reform, the 2017 elections will predetermine who will govern Armenia after Sarkisian completes his second and final term in 2018.