Constitutional Referendum of 2015

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Voting Underway In Armenian Constitutional Referendum

Ruzanna Stepanian, Sargis Harutyunyan, Anush Mkrtchian եւ Tatevik Lazarian

06.12.2015

Voting began on Sunday in a referendum on controversial constitutional changes that would turn Armenia into a parliamentary republic after President Serzh Sarkisian completes his second and final term in office in 2018.

Sarkisian and his political allies say transition to the parliamentary system of government would facilitate the country’s democratization and help to address economic and security challenges facing it. Their political opponents insist, however, that the key aim of the constitutional reform is to enable Sarkisian to remain in power in a different capacity after 2018.

The Armenian constitution bars the president of the republic from seeking a third term. A package of constitutional amendments drafted by a presidential commission would not remove this restriction.

Sarkisian, senior members of his administration as well as Armenian opposition leaders cast ballots at various polling stations in Yerevan in the morning. “I will answer all questions after the voting is over,” Sarkisian told reporters at one of those polling stations. He refused to comment further.

Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian, who has led the ruling Republican Party’s pre-referendum “Yes” campaign, said he voted for Armenia’s “stable future and development.” “We have done everything to ensure that the referendum is free and fair and urged our teammates to be impartial,” he said.

Abrahamian also urged government loyalists not to “pay lip service” to the reform through vote irregularities. “I hope and our teammates will do everything to prevent violations,” he said.

Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, whose Armenian National Congress (HAK) opposition has campaigned against the proposed changes, called for a high voter turnout. “The more real people -- I repeat, real people -- come out and vote, the more objective the referendum results will be,” he told journalists.

Another opposition leader, Raffi Hovannisian, demonstratively tore up his ballot before dropping it into a ballot box. Hovannisian’s Zharangutyun (Heritage) party is part of an opposition alliance currently holding nonstop street protests with the declared aim of toppling Sarkisian.

To pass, the amendments will have to be approved by the majority of referendum participants making up at least one-quarter of Armenia’s 2.5 million or so eligible voters. Sarkisian and his political allies will thus need to garner at least 625,000 “Yes” votes.

Opposition representatives alleged irregularities shortly after the start of voting. In particular, they claimed that groups of pro-governments voters living outside Yerevan are being bused to polling stations in the capital.

Hovsep Khurshudian, a Zharangutyun activist and a member of a precinct election commission in Yerevan, said several provincial residents and even ethnic Armenian citizens of Georgia attempted to vote there despite not being included on the precinct’s voter registers. “Citizens are handed false documents to be able to vote here,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).

In another Yerevan precinct, an RFE/RL correspondent witnessed dozens of residents of Armenia’s central Kotayk province voting under the watchful eyes of a group of men who stood outside the polling station. They produced police documents allowing them to cast ballots there.

The suspicious practice prompted vehement protests from Zaruhi Postanjian, a Zharangutyun leader who monitored voting there. Postanjian said she will lodge a formal complaint with the police. But she also said, “It’s clear that the police are also involved in this fraud.”

Another RFE/RL TV crew saw scores of people with passports entering two “Yes” campaign offices in the city’s Arabkir district run by President Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). Many of them boarded minibuses and taxis and were driven in unknown directions afterwards.

The busing process was seemingly coordinated by young men holding sheets of paper with people’s names. Some of those men tried to confiscate an RFE/RL camera that filmed them. They were reined in by other, apparently more senior HHK activists.

Moments later, an RFE/RL reporter was persistently attacked by an elderly woman outside the same HHK office. “Get out of here,” shouted the woman. “Spit on your face. Don’t film. Don’t talk to people.”

“Guys, don’t talk to her. Don’t talk to her,” the woman said, turning to other voters who lined up outside the office.

The office workers refused to let the reporter, Anush Mkrtchian, in and answer her questions. One HHK activist, who identified herself as Toma, subsequently emerged from the officer and talked to her. She claimed that the ruling party is not buying votes and that her office is only handing out food to poor people for charitable purposes unrelated to the referendum.

Opposition representatives are certain to assert, however, that the voters entered the HHK offices to receive cash in return for voting for the constitutional changes. Vote buying has long been endemic in Armenia.

Later in the day, Prosecutor-General Gevorg Kostanian ordered the Armenian police to investigate the attack on Mkrtchian. The police did not immediately react to the order.

Armenian Authorities Claim ‘Yes’ Vote For New Constitution

Emil Danielyan

Հրապարակված է՝ 07.12.2015

Amid opposition allegations of serious fraud, Armenia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) said early on Monday that voters have backed sweeping constitutional changes which President Serzh Sarkisian’s political opponents claim could extend his rule.

The CEC said that with over 93 percent of ballots cast counted, 63.5 percent of participants of Sunday’s referendum voted for the changes envisaging the country’s transition to the parliamentary system of government after Sarkisian’s second presidential term ends in 2018.

The preliminary official results are certain to be rejected as fraudulent by Armenian opposition groups that have campaigned against the controversial constitutional reform. They alleged serious irregularities in and outside many polling stations throughout the day.

The opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) dismissed the first official figures shortly after the CEC began publishing them after midnight. Levon Zurabian, an HAK leader, said that in fact Armenians have overwhelmingly rejected the amendments drafted by an ad hoc presidential commission. He cited referendum results from dozens of precincts indicating resounding “No” votes.

Zurabian claimed that Sarkisian and the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) secured many of the “Yes” votes through ballot box stuffing, multiple voting and vote buying. In that regard, he also dismissed the CEC claim that almost 1.3 million people making up just over half of Armenia’s eligible voters cast ballots on Sunday. The official voter turnout is “not compatible with the country’s demography,” he said.

Zurabian and representatives of another major opposition party, Zharangutyun (Heritage), also accused government loyalists of disrupting vote counts in many other precincts where popular support for Sarkisian’s constitutional package proved weak. A Zharangutyun proxy claimed to have been beaten up in one of those precincts located just west of Yerevan.

The CEC, which is dominated by Sarkisian allies, as well as the HHK will reject the allegations. The CEC chairman, Tigran Mukuchian, challenged the opposition to present documentary evidence of fraud in writing as hundreds of opposition supporters rallied on Sunday night near the commission’s offices in downtown Yerevan.

The demonstration was organized by Zharangutyun and several other opposition groups aligned in the New Armenia Public Salvation Front. The alliance launched on Tuesday a campaign of street protests aimed at unseating Sarkisian. It has failed to pull large crowds.

The more moderate HAK and its allies will hold a rally in Yerevan’s Liberty Square on Monday. “We expect to see many people in Liberty Square,” Zurabian told a late-night news conference. Speaking before the CEC effectively gave victory to the “Yes” camp, he said the HAK’s further actions will depend on the official referendum results.

The referendum was monitored by several hundred observers deployed by Armenian civic groups in polling stations across the country. Many of them also reported serious irregularities.

By contrast, international vote-monitoring bodies like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe sent only a handful of representatives to Armenia. This might be connected with the fact that neither the United States nor the European Union has endorsed or voiced concerns over the constitutional reform.

Also, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission gave a largely positive assessment of Sarkisian’s constitutional amendments in September. The commission said they would mark a “further important step forward in the transition of Armenia towards democracy.”

The HAK, Zharangutyun and other reform opponents maintain that Sarkisian is only keen to stay in power in a different capacity after serving out his second and final term in 2018. In a bid to disprove such claims, Sarkisian said last year that he will not seek to become prime minister or parliament speaker if Armenia switches to the parliamentary system. However, he pointedly declined to reaffirm that pledge in televised remarks aired on Thursday.

U.S., EU React To Armenian Referendum

Sargis Harutyunyan

Հրապարակված է՝ 08.12.2015

The United States and the European Union urged the Armenian authorities on Tuesday to investigate major irregularities reported during the weekend referendum, saying that is essential for the legitimacy of President Serzh Sarkisian’s constitutional reform.

The U.S. Embassy in Yerevan was particularly concerned about the conduct of the referendum, describing allegations of vote rigging as “credible.”

“The credible allegations of electoral irregularities reported by both non-partisan observers as well as Armenian political parties are of concern, however, and need to be fully investigated to ensure that the Armenian people can see the outcome of the referendum as credible and legitimate,” the embassy stressed in a statement.

“We urge the Electoral Commission and the Armenian government to carry out transparent investigations of all credible reports of irregularities,” it said.

“We encourage the authorities to fully investigate fraud allegations, for the referendum process to be credible,” Ambassador Piotr Switalski, the head of the EU Delegation to Armenia, said in written comments to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).

Switalski said at the same time that the EU “took note” of the official referendum results indicating a “Yes” vote for Sarkisian’s controversial constitutional changes. “Is now important to implement the new constitution, in particular the human rights chapter, the new checks and balances and minority rights for the opposition, so that it does not just remain on paper,” he added.

Both Switalski and the U.S. Embassy said the authorities should enact a new Electoral Code meeting democratic standards in advance of Armenia’s next parliamentary elections due in May 2017. The authorities must also ensure that the elections are “viewed by the Armenian people as credible, legitimate, and a true reflection of their will,” stressed the embassy statement.

The 2017 elections will determine who will govern Armenia after President Serzh Sarkisian completes his second and final term in 2018. The constitutional amendments envisage the country’s transformation into a parliamentary republic with a largely ceremonial president.

The U.S. and the EU have not formulated a position on those changes throughout the constitutional reform process which Sarkisian launched over two years ago. Nor did the EU send a monitoring mission to Sunday’s referendum marred by fraud allegations. Richard Mills, the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, monitored voting in some polling stations in Yerevan.

On Monday, the EU began official negotiations with Armenia on a new agreement to deepen their political and economic relations. Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian cited the official referendum results when he spoke at the start of the talks in Brussels. Nalbandian described Sarkisian’s amendments as “another important step” towards democratic change in Armenia.

Armenian opposition groups insist, however, that the main purpose of the reform is to enable Sarkisian to extend his rule beyond 2018.


OSCE Experts Critical Of Armenian Referendum

Tigran Avetisian եւ Ruzanna Stepanian

08.02.2016

Election experts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have given a critical assessment of Armenia’s recent constitutional referendum, singling out “serious problems” with vote counts at polling stations visited by them.

In a report issued at the weekend, they also criticized the Armenian authorities for using “considerable public funds” to secure a disputed “Yes” vote for President Serzh Sarkisian’s constitutional amendments.

The OSCE’s vote-monitoring arm, the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), did not deploy a full-fledged observer mission in Armenia for the December 6 referendum, dispatching instead a team of four experts in late November.

The experts stressed that they monitored the vote only in a small number of polling stations and thus “did not conduct a comprehensive and systematic observation of referendum day proceedings.”

“The voting process at the polling stations observed by the OSCE/ODIHR [referendum expert team] was generally quiet and voting procedures were mostly followed,” reads their report. “However … the voters’ ID cards were not stamped, which led to inconsistent application of safeguards against multiple voting.”

The experts attended the counting of ballots at two polling stations and claimed to have witnessed “significant interference” in the process by proxies representing Sarkisian’s ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). At one of those polling stations, this resulted in a “manipulation of the results … in favor of “Yes” vote.”

“In particular, some valid “No” ballots were removed in an unauthorized manner and then returned as invalid ballots or placed in the wrong piles,” says the report. In the other electoral precinct, it adds, “procedural mistakes led to invalidation of many valid “No” votes.”

The report goes on to caution that the small OSCE team was “not in a position to determine whether the identified shortcomings represent more than isolated cases of malpractice.”

The experts also noted the fact that many senior state officials -- among them the chiefs of Sarkisian’s staff and the presidential Oversight Service, government ministers and all regional governors -- were actively involved in the “Yes” campaign.

“Since all these officials are paid from the state and local budgets, considerable public funds were used for “Yes” campaign, challenging paragraphs 7.6 and 7.7 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document and other international obligations,” they said.

Sarkisian’s press secretary, Vladimir Hakobian, on Monday dismissed this criticism, arguing that Armenian law does not bar those officials from participating in election or referendum campaigns. In comments to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), Hakobian also insisted that the senior presidential aides did not use public resources for promoting a “Yes” vote.

The Sarkisian administration and its political allies maintain that the referendum was free and fair, denying fraud allegations made by opposition groups, non-partisan observers and some media. A coalition of Armenian civic groups that deployed hundreds of such observers last week stood by its conclusion that the referendum was rigged by the authorities.

The United States and the European Union have urged the authorities to investigate “credible” fraud allegations in earnest and take other steps to ensure the proper conduct of Armenia’s next parliamentary elections due in May 2017.

The OSCE experts believe that the authorities have so far failed to accept corresponding proposals made by the ODIHR. “The conduct of the referendum reflected the absence of meaningful actions over the previous three years to address prior OSCE/ODIHR recommendations to improve confidence and public trust in the electoral process, including by improving accuracy of voter lists, preventing misuse of public resources in campaigns, and strengthening safeguards against voting day irregularities,” says their report.

Another Referendum Official Fined For Fraud

Sisak Gabrielian

19.03.2016

A court in Yerevan on Friday fined yet another government loyalist 500,000 drams ($1,000) for serious fraud committed during last December’s referendum on President Serzh Sarkisian’s constitutional reform.

Hasmik Hovannisian, who was a senior member of a precinct election commission in Yerevan, admitted forging referendum-related documents and illegally casting multiple ballots marked in favor of the controversial amendments to the Armenian constitution.

“Do you feel remorse for your actions?” the presiding judge asked Hovannisian. “Yes, I do,” she replied.

The brief hearing was held under a so-called “accelerated procedure” that did not require questioning of witnesses and close examination of the defendant’s motives. Both Hovannisian and her lawyer refused to comment after the announcement of the verdict. It thus remained unclear whether she falsified referendum results in her precinct on her own or followed others’ orders.

The trials of more than a dozen other government supporters prosecuted for referendum-related irregularities so far followed the same pattern. Virtually all of those individuals were fined 500,000 drams.

As of last month, law-enforcement authorities opened 68 criminal cases and charged 32 individuals in connection with referendum fraud.

Opposition leaders, who consider the referendum to have been rigged, have dismissed these fraud cases as publicity stunts. They say that neither the prosecutors nor courts have even attempted to identify masterminds. The authorities, they claim, are only imitating anti-fraud measures in response to serious concerns voiced by the United States and the European Union in the wake of the December 6 vote.


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