An explosion targeting one of the main parties in Armenia's upcoming parliamentary elections has given a new dimension to officials' preparations for a free and fair vote this May. The government has stated that such a vote is critical to Armenia's future, and points to recent election code amendments to emphasize its commitment to a democratic ballot.
On April 12, the headquarters and another Yerevan office of the Prosperous Armenia Party, a leading pro-government contender for the May 12 vote, were struck in two separate blasts. A store adjoining one of the offices, reportedly owned by a Prosperous Armenia member, was also badly damaged, the A1+ news site reported. No injuries were caused by the explosions.
Both President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, leader of Prosperous Armenia's main rival, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, have described the attacks as an attempt to disrupt the elections. President Kocharian, widely viewed as a supporter of Prosperous Armenia, has ordered a criminal investigation into the explosions.
The blasts, coming just four days into the official campaign season, have raised alarm that the election could prove a particularly violent struggle. The explosions follow a reported attempted shooting of one parliament deputy running for reelection [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive], and an April 2 attack on the mayor of Gyumri, a senior member of the Republican Party, that left four people dead. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Many ordinary Armenians believe the explosions are the result of rivalry between Prosperous Armenia and the Republican Party, whose activists have already clashed in a fistfight. Representatives of Prosperous Armenia, however, have not said whom they suspect. The party issued a statement that described the explosions as "an attempt to destabilize the situation and shift the political struggle onto another field."
Despite this emerging pattern of violence, Armenian election officials have earlier stressed that they expect a calm election that meets international standards. The stakes are sizeable aside from possible exclusion from closer ties with the European Union, the country stands to risk $235 million in development aide from the United States' Millennium Challenge Foundation if the vote is fraudulent.
Garegin Azarian, chairman of the Central Election Commission, says that Armenia's revised election code indicates that the 2007 vote will go differently from past elections. "It will give us an opportunity to have free, fair and transparent elections," Azarian said at a January press conference.
The code's stipulation that envelopes be used for cast ballots is believed to be one major improvement for preventing ballot box stuffing, a widespread practice in the past, and for providing for the confidentiality of votes cast.
Recent election code amendments also stipulate that conscripts' military service cards used to identify voting soldiers be sealed to prevent multiple voting. Armenia has approximately 40,000 conscripts, according to defense ministry data -- a number which means that multiple cast ballots could potentially influence the outcome of the elections. Such incidents were frequent during the 2003 elections, with buses provided to take soldiers to repeat polling stations, according to reports by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and Transparency International.
The changes made to the Election Code, however, did not include allowing for ink marks on voters' fingers, a measure recommended by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission to prevent multiple voting. Authorities claimed that the ink could be too easily rubbed off.
Khachik Voskanyan, deputy chairman of It's Your Choice, Armenia's largest election monitoring organization, terms the decision "ridiculous".
"We suggested an alternative way, to seal the passports as with the conscripts [and their service cards], but they refused it also," Voskanian said. "It's just a good way to falsify."
Armenia's election code has been amended nine times since 1999; however, none of the elections held during that time have been qualified as "free and fair" by international observers.
"Changing the election code is useless unless there is political will [for change]," commented Felix Khachatrian, a representative of the opposition Justice alliance on the Central Election Commission. "We had no election code in 1992, but the [presidential] elections were fair."
Khachatrian, like other opposition members, is most concerned by the abolition of an Election code provision that stipulated a quorum of members be present for any election commission decision. The change was made to prevent disruption of the election by a boycott. With only three seats on the nine-seat election commissions, the already fragmented opposition believes the new provision could weaken their position still further.
"The authorities can blackmail and threaten the opposition members very easily to exclude undesired opposition members from participating in the commission's meetings," Khachatrian claimed.
International organizations are helping election commissions prepare for the vote. The international non-profit organization IFES has held a one-day training for about 800 members of 41 territorial election commissions at which the election code was studied in detail and voting procedures reviewed. Similar exercises for district election commissions are planned in May. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has published a training guide for election commissions.
"Election violations can be divided into two types -- deliberate and through incompetence," commented Aghasi Yesaian, IFES's senior elections expert in Yerevan. While the training can help prevent violations made through ignorance -- a frequent occurrence in the 2003 elections, according to Yesaian -- they, "of course, cannot prevent deliberate violations," he said.
Rather than ballot box stuffing, many opposition members and analysts contend that rigging the vote count will be the technique of choice. "Everything will be done during the counting," commented political analyst Aghasi Yenokian, a member of the largely pro-opposition civil initiative Alternative. "It's easier to come up with figures than to disgrace oneself once again in the eyes of the international community" with overt falsification, he noted.
Officials have attempted to overhaul the voter registration system in an attempt to preclude falsified voting. Voters can check for their names on the Central Election Commission's website, and receive instructions over a hotline if they fail to find their name in the lists or detect a mistake.
Another change has put the police in charge of assembling voter lists. The inclusion of the names of deceased voters on the lists is the most common inaccuracy, according to Deputy Chief of Police Ararat Mahtesian. "We are trying to minimize those inaccuracies," he said at an April 9 press conference.
Some opposition members, however, say that their concerns linger on. Khachatrian, the opposition delegate to the CEC, questions an increase by over 75,000 voters since the 2005 constitutional referendum in lists of registered voters. "According to the constituency lists, the number of voters today has grown by 8,200 in three months. But is there a mass immigration to Armenia taking place?"
Eleonora Manandian, a polling station proxy for opposition leader Stepan Demirchian's People's Party of Armenia during the last elections, also sees little hope for a clean vote. "The amendments in the Code can't change anything," she said. "We need radical change. Otherwise, they will find ways to violate the [Code's] new provisions, too."
The government maintains it is prepared to make that change from the 2003 presidential and parliamentary elections. For Armenia, a free and fair vote is "the breath of life," Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian commented to journalists on March 22.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the independent ArmeniaNow weekly in Yerevan.