A controversial referendum in Armenia on December 6 endorsed constitutional changes that will transform the country into a parliamentary republic. But allegations of rampant fraud are clouding the legitimacy of the result.
Based on preliminary data, 63 percent of roughly 1.3 million participating voters, about half of Armenia’s population, agreed to change Armenia from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic. Overall, the referendum approved over 200 changes to the constitution.
“We are pleased with the participation,” senior Republican Party of Armenia MP Samvel Nikolian told reporters. “This means that our public is very active. They are interested in constitutional changes and are not indifferent toward the future of our state.”
The changes will go into effect after the 2017 parliamentary elections. Critics contend that if President Serzh Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia again wins that vote, the revised constitution will allow it to nominate President Sargsyan for an unprecedented third term in office. Sargsyan, 61, who steps down in 2018, has denied he has any such ambition.
Like all of Armenia’s previous national votes, there were widespread reports of irregularities in the December 6 referendum, including allegations of ballot-box stuffing, carousel voting, vote buying, fraudulent voter lists, and physical harassment of domestic observers and media.
On the evening of December 7, anti-referendum activists were gathering to protest the vote’s conduct outside of the Central Election Commission in the capital, Yerevan.
As usual, the vast majority of the reported violations occurred in Yerevan, according to a map of citizen-observer filings posted by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
The European Platform for Democratic Elections, a coalition of 13 non-governmental organizations from the European Union and Eurasia and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights group, alleged “an unprecedented number of violations of the electoral law and international standards,” including the physical harassment of reporters.
The abuses appeared systematic, with the heads of election commissions “in several cases” refusing to stop the physical abuse of members of the media, the group claimed.
“We consider that the results of this referendum, characterized by a large amount of electoral fraud and crime, abuse, ballot-box stuffing, do not reflect the free will of the people and must not be considered legitimate,” Norwegian observer Lene Wetteland told a December 7 press briefing.
In a blunt statement, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the continent’s main human-rights body, charged that the 50.5 percent turnout “reflects the fact that the referendum was driven by political interests, instead of the needs of the Armenian public.”
Citing “large-scale, organized” vote buying, carousel voting, intimidation, and other violations, the group expressed regret that “the authorities were not more concerned by the integrity of the process.”
One observer for the opposition Heritage Party in Yerevan’s Davitashen neighborhood reported being badly beaten when he protested that the head of an electoral commission in Precinct No. 5 was adding “No” votes to the “Yes” tally.
“They took my phone, deleted all the materials I recorded,” Hrayr Manukian told EurasiaNet.org. “There were around 15 policemen standing right there. I approached them, but they said they couldn’t do anything until the head of the [election] commission orders them to.” The official did not, Manukian claimed. Police are investigating.
Manukian said that he signed the vote protocols to ensure a recount.
Other critics are focusing on the voter numbers, alleging that anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 of the votes were illegitimate. The Armenian chapter of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International found “thousands” of “people on the voting lists who left Armenia 20 or more years ago,” or individuals who are not citizens, the chapter’s director, Varuzhan Hoktanian, said.
“I will not be surprised if in 2017 we will have 110-120 percent of the population as voters,” he drily remarked.
Despite Armenia’s robust rate of emigration, the Central Election Committee’s lists had 96,368 more eligible voters for the December 6 referendum than for Armenia’s 2013 presidential elections, noted Levon Zurabian, the deputy head of the opposition Armenian National Congress (ANC).
Already, popular jokes are making the rounds that feature the dead casting ballots. In one, a woman tells an anti-referendum campaigner knocking on her neighbors’ apartment door that the occupants “will vote ‘Yes’ for sure.”
“How can you know what they will do?” asks the activist. “It’s so simple,” the woman explains. “They died eight years ago and, after that, they always vote for the authorities.”
Online media outlets have reported that some voters found ballots already cast in their names. A video published by RFE/RL’s Armenian service showed a man in an unmarked van near a polling station paying 10,000 drams ($20.64) to elderly voters — for his debts, he alleged.
Republican Party spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov stressed that the referendum complied with democratic and international standards. With 1,997 polling stations, “shortcomings” are “natural,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
“It’s impossible that no problems should occur,” he said. “In some cases, people tried to pay us an unnecessary, incorrect favor, and the opposition turned to provocations” about the “favors.”
Reflecting Armenia’s close economic and military ties with Moscow, the head of the observer team for the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States, Yevgeny Slobodan, described the voting as “calm” and told media that “the will of the people was expressed.”
The ANC, a leading opposition force, has pledged that “the battle is not over,” and announced a December 11 protest in Yerevan’s Freedom Square. It remains to be seen how many protesters turn out in the winter cold. Pre-referendum demonstrations in Yerevan drew a few thousand, crowds that were far smaller than those seen during the Electric Yerevan protests this summer, when demonstrators brought part of downtown Yerevan to a standstill for days.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.