The opposition election bloc comprising former President Levon Ter-Petrossian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) and the People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK) headed by Stepan Demirchian announced on April 7 it will appeal to the Constitutional Court to annul the outcome of the April 2 parliamentary elections, RFE/RL’s Armenian Service reported.
The bloc claimed that “large-scale and systematic violations of the electoral process,” including widespread vote-buying and the intimidation of voters by government loyalists, precluded the free expression of the people’s will.
According to the official preliminary election results, just four of the five political parties and four electoral blocs that participated will be represented in the new legislature, in which the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) retained its majority. The Congress-HZhK bloc was not one of them: it polled just 1.65 percent of the vote, far less than the 7 percent minimum required for electoral blocs to win representation.
The bloc’s allegations of malpractice, and specifically vote-buying, are partially corroborated by the preliminary assessment of the election by observers deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Parliament, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Their joint statement assessed the vote as “tainted by credible information about vote-buying, and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.”
Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on April 3, Heidi Hautala, who headed the observers from the European Parliament, similarly expressed regret that the election “process was undermined by credible, recurring information of vote buying, intimidation of voters, notably civil servants in schools and hospitals and employees of private companies, as well as abuse of administrative positions.”
Allegations of vote-buying surfaced soon after the election campaign formally got under way on March 5. Just days later, senior HShK member Levon Zurabian described how a group of voters showed up at Congress headquarters in Yerevan on the mistaken assumption that it was a government office, and asked to sign up for the financial aid they had been promised in return for voting for the HHK, RFE/RL’s Armenian Service reported.
Environment Minister Artsvik Minasian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, the HHK’s junior coalition partner, similarly said “various candidates or individuals have promised money or services [to voters].”
Varuzhan Hoktanian, the head of Armenia’s leading anticorruption watchdog, which is affiliated with Transparency International, was more specific, telling RFE/RL that reports his NGO had received “lead us to conclude that vote bribes are mainly paid by the ruling party.”
He described vote-buying as “a really serious problem.”
Other Armenian media, too, reported suspected widespread vote-buying and decried as lacking credibility pledges by senior officials — such as police chief Vladimir Gasparian — to combat such abuses.
The HHK was, however, not the only party that sought to win over voters by offering material incentives.
Bargavach Hayastan, which is headed by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, also promised such benefits, for which the party received a formal reprimand in early March from the Central Election Commission.
The newspaper Hraparak described how “desperately poor” people “besieged” Tsarukian at his meetings with voters to beg for financial assistance. (The party placed second, with 31 parliament mandates.)
The initial assessment of the election by the international observer mission said that “some government officials indicated that vote-buying had become an entrenched part of political culture, stating that accepting money or other benefits in exchange for votes was often justified by extreme poverty and lack of economic opportunities.”
In the wake of the vote, HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov implicitly admitted that vote-buying had taken place, while insisting that it did not have “a substantial impact” on the outcome of the ballot. That latter assertion is open to question, however. The opposition bloc Yelk (Way Out), which placed third with nine parliament mandates, claimed in an April 4 statement that “tens of thousands of citizens were involved in the chain of vote-bribe distribution and acceptance.”
The HHK polled enough votes to give it the 54 percent of parliament mandates that constitutes a stable majority (58 of 105) and thus obviates the need to form a new coalition. In 2012 and 2007, the HHK garnered 69 and 64, respectively, of the 131 parliament mandates.
Even if the HHK victory was not the direct result of malpractice, this election represented a shift in the prevalent pattern of procedural violations that had led international observer missions to characterize the parliamentary ballots in 1999 and 2003 as falling short of Armenia’s OSCE commitments and of other standards for democratic elections.
In previous ballots, the most frequent and egregious violations registered by international observers took place during the actual vote (multiple, proxy, or absentee voting) or the vote count and tabulation. In 2012, for example, there were major glitches in the use of the ink used to mark voters’ fingers in an attempt to preclude multiple voting, which faded shortly after application. And observers assessed the vote count as “bad” or “very bad” in almost 20 percent of the polling stations where they were present (24 of 125.) The corresponding figure in 2007 had been 17 percent.
Two factors may have contributed to the change in the incidence of various forms of fraud. The first is the disastrous economic situation (a World Bank report released late last year assessed the number of Armenians living below of the poverty line of $2.5 per day at almost one in four) and the eclipse of ideology as a factor motivating voters. A commentary posted on JAMnet opined that “there is an ongoing process in Armenia, where forces lacking ideology are winning over ideological ones…. People tend to vote not for words, but rather for a road to be built in a village, for doors or windows to be installed in a house, for a salary; they tend to vote depending on the affiliation of their employer to this or that party, depending on where they live.”
In other words, given only minor differences in the programs of the various parties seeking election, economic necessity may have been deciding factor determining which party people voted for.