The measure is part of a package of legal amendments which the pro-government majority in the National Assembly says will help to prevent serious irregularities in the run-up to and during snap parliamentary elections expected in June.
The amendments call for heavier fines and lengthier prison sentences for vote buying, election-related violence and disruption of the electoral process. They also introduce criminal liability for attempts to impede pre-election activities of political parties or their individual candidates.
This includes forcing people not to attend campaign rallies or agitate for a particular election contender. Individuals convicted of such offenses would face up to three years in prison.
“If anyone tries to impede an election campaign they will be subjected to criminal prosecution,” said Vahagn Hovakimian, a senior deputy from Pashinian’s My Step bloc and the main author of the bill which pro-government lawmakers urgently passed in the first and second readings.
The bill calls for a longer jail term (up to five years) for anyone who would pay voters to attend or boycott a pre-election rally.
Ani Samsonian, a deputy representing the opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK), criticized the bill, saying that it could be used to penalize the opposition.
“The opposition has no levers to coerce people to make donations to its campaign fund,” argued Samsonian. By contrast, she said, My Step is in a position to pressure businesspeople to finance its election campaign.
The ruling political force pushed the bill through the parliament one week after Pashinian visited Syunik and faced protests by local residents blaming him for Armenia’s defeat in last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh which has directly affected their communities.
Dozens of angry men swore at the prime minister and branded him a “capitulator” as he walked through the provincial towns of Agarak and Meghri on April 21. Pashinian’s motorcade was pelted with eggs as it drove through another Syunik community, Goris, later that day.
Pashinian condemned the incidents as a “violation of the law” before law-enforcement authorities rounded up more than two dozen people and charged them with hooliganism and/or violent resistance to police. Armenia’s Investigative Committee said the “hooligan acts” were organized by opposition-linked local government officials the purpose of hampering Pashinian’s “movements and meetings with the population.”
Some critics of the Armenian government claim that Pashinian himself broke the law by trying to hold pre-election rallies before the official start of campaigning for the snap polls. They similarly accused Pashinian of illegal campaigning after he visited villages in two other regions and held rallies there late last month. The premier’s political allies deny any connection between those visits and the upcoming vote.
It remains to be seen whether President Armen Sarkissian will sign the latest bill into law. In recent weeks Sarkissian has challenged the legality of government-backed legislation that would tighten government control of state universities, give more powers to a state body overseeing the Armenian judiciary and triple maximum fines for defamation.