With two days to go before municipal elections in Yerevan, the opposition Yelk alliance demanded on Friday that the ruling Republican Party (HHK) and its top candidate, incumbent Mayor Taron Markarian, be disqualified from the race because of what it called vote buying.
The demand was lodged with the Central Election Commission (CEC) the day after a correspondent for “Haykakan Zhamanak,” a newspaper close to Yelk’s mayoral candidate Nikol Pashinian, claimed to have witnessed distribution of vote bribes at an HHK campaign office in the city’s Malatia-Sebastia district.
The journalist, Anna Zakharian, said she saw local voters emerging from the office with 20,000-dram ($41) notes as well as ballots marked for the HHK and Markarian in their hands. She said she entered the office and started filming it with her mobile phone before being confronted by HHK activists working there. Zakharian claimed that they wrested the phone.
“Haykakan Zhamanak” released afterwards a short video which it said they tried unsuccessfully to delete. It shows people approaching a man sitting at a table and calling out their names inside the overcrowded office.
Pashinian and other Yelk leaders rushed to the scene later on Thursday, demanding that the Armenian police search the HHK office and stop the alleged vote buying. They complained afterwards that police officers alerted by them sealed but did not enter the premises.
The HHK’s campaign headquarters issued a statement, meanwhile, denying the Yelk allegations as “utter disinformation.”
Yelk appealed to the CEC the following morning, demanding that the commission seek a court ruling that would disqualify the HHK and Markarian. In a separate petition, it also demanded that the commission ask the police to deploy officers at the HHK’s campaign offices across the city.
One of the opposition bloc’s representatives, Artak Zeynalian, said the Malatia-Sebastia incident is indicative of the HHK’s systematic recourse to vote buying both in the mayoral race and recent parliamentary elections.
The CEC was due to meet and consider the demands later in the day.
The CEC chairman, Tigran Mukuchian, declined to confirm or deny the alleged vote buying when he spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Friday. He said the incident is being investigated by law-enforcement authorities. The latter issued no statements to that effect as of late afternoon.
Mukuchian also denied that HHK campaigners in Malatia-Sebastia obtained valid ballots before the mayoral polls in violation of Armenian law. He claimed that they only used ballot samples as “propaganda material.”
Meanwhile, Yelk claimed to have uncovered evidence of vote buying at an HHK office in another Yerevan district, Arabkir. In a live Facebook broadcast, Pashinian demonstrated what he called HHK documents detailing distribution of vote bribes to local residents. He urged supporters to join a Yelk demonstration which was due to be staged in the area later in the day.
The HHK, which is headed by President Serzh Sarkisian, was already accused of buying votes during the April 2 parliamentary elections. Opposition groups say that the illegal practice was instrumental in the ruling party’s landslide election victory.
In an April 3 report, European observers cited “credible information about vote-buying, and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.”
A spokesman for the HHK subsequently admitted that vote bribes were handed out by some candidates. But he insisted that they did not have a “substantial impact” on the election outcome.