Constitutional?: European observers question Armenian referendum vote

Observers from the Council of Europe on Monday cast serious doubt on the credibility of the official results of Armenia’s weekend referendum which show overwhelming popular support for constitutional amendments sponsored by the ruling government coalition and endorsed by President Robert Kocharian.

The 14-member monitoring team from the council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities (CLRAE) singled out a paradoxically high turnout that was reported by the Armenian authorities despite empty polling stations across the country.

According to preliminary figures released by the Central Election Commission, as many as 1.5 million Armenians, or nearly two thirds of the 2.3 million eligible voters, took part in Sunday’s referendum and 93.8 percent of them voted for the amendments. To pass, the amendments had to be endorsed by at least 767,000 voters. The figures sharply contrast with strong anecdotal evidence of a lack of public interest in the process.

“The 14 members of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities noted that the referendum generally reflected the free will of those who voted,” the head of the delegation, Tomas Jirsa, said, presenting their preliminary findings. “However, on voting day the observers witnessed serious abuse in several polling stations which cast a shadow over the credibility of the officially announced turnout.”

In the words of Sean O’Brien, another member of the delegation, the observers witnessed serious fraud “in a significant number of polling stations in Yerevan and other regions,” and added that: “The extremely low voting activity did not correspond to the high figures provided by the electoral commissions. There were also clear instances of forged additional signatures on the voters registers and of ballot stuffing.”

“The delegation considers that the abuses that marred the referendum were against the intent and the interest of the Armenian people,” O’Brien added, calling on the Armenian authorities to bring “those responsible for fraud” to account.

The official turnout was openly rejected as fraudulent by the head of Armenia’s largest election-monitoring organization called It’s Your Choice. “The figure is really unbelievable,” Harutiun Hambartsumian told RFE/RL. He said the group, which deployed over 2,000 observers, will release a detailed report on the referendum Tuesday.

Nevertheless, the CEC chairman, Garegin Azarian, stood by the official vote tally, saying that turnout was indeed high. He was reluctant to comment on the observers’ findings. “Yes, they registered violations and said they believe the CEC will draw conclusions regarding their proposals,” he told reporters. “I am now in a hurry to meet them and discuss the questions raised by them.”

Azarian also wrongly claimed that fewer Armenians participated in the referendum than in the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2003. The official turnout at the time was 62 percent and 51 percent respectively.

With the Armenian opposition boycotting the referendum and urging supporters to do the same, high turnout was critical for the success of the constitutional reform endorsed by the Council of Europe and Western powers. The CEC put the turnout in Yerevan, home to at least one third of the country’s population, at almost 56 percent. However, less than a quarter of eligible voters in polling stations across the city visited by RFE/RL correspondents cast their ballots by the evening.

Christopher Newbury, a British observer, said the turnout was inflated in a “significant number of polling stations.” The monitoring mission as a whole avoided any comment on whether the amendments would have passed without the reported fraud.

“It’s not for us to evaluate whether or not the referendum was valid,” said Jirsa. "It’s up to the Central Election Commission of Armenia.” He indicated that the Council of Europe mission was too small to pass such judgment.

The presidential and parliamentary elections held in Armenia since the Soviet collapse were typically monitored by at least 200 Western observers, most of them representing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE failed to deploy a similar mission this time around, citing a lack of formal invitation from the Armenian government.

Yerevan does not seem to have faced pressure to invite the OSCE from the U.S. and other Western governments. Furthermore, the influential Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian is said to have told the OSCE on behalf of his government not to monitor the November 27 vote.

In their preliminary statement made public at a news conference, the Council of Europe team deplored in this regard “the decision taken by the authorities which precluded the attendance by any other international observers.” It also slammed the Armenian opposition for recalling its representatives from the election commissions and failing to properly monitor Sunday’s polling.

Lord John Tomlinson, a British member of the PACE, told reporters: “We have participated to try to help you. We wish they [the opposition] had participated to try to help themselves and the people that they purport to represent.”

Azarian also ciritized the the opposition boycott. “By means of self-isolation, they deprived themselves of the possibility of overseeing the process and appealing the referendum results,” he said.