It has become progressively clearer during the four-week campaign preceding the Armenian parliamentary elections on May 6 that the main campaign issue is not the political, economic, or foreign-policy choices the country faces, but the actual conduct of the election itself.
Instead of focusing primarily on their party programs, candidates from the seven parties and one bloc competing with President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) have accused both the HHK and its coalition partner
, Prosperous Armenia (BH) of seeking to influence the outcome by either the use of "administrative resources" or the distribution of financial and material incentives.
Much media coverage of the campaign too has focused on whether and how the HHK and BH can and will use the considerable resources at their disposal to illegally augment their share of the vote. Meanwhile, election campaign posters on the streets of Yerevan are few and far between.
In campaign speeches across the country, President Sarkisian has repeatedly pledged to ensure the vote is the most democratic in Armenia's recent history, in order to facilitate the formation of a government that would enjoy popular trust
Responding to allegations that thousands of additional names have been added to electoral rolls to enable the ruling party to inflate the number of ballots cast for it, HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov similarly assured RFE/RL's Armenian Service
that "the authorities will exclude any undemocratic and illegal manifestation during the elections.... We will do everything to make these elections normal and democratic."
The police department responsible for maintaining voter lists claims to have reviewed and checked the voter lists
to remove the names of some 2,000 persons deceased or no longer resident in Armenia. It later gave the total number of registered voters
But former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who is second on the BH list of candidates competing for the 90 parliament mandates distributed under the proportional system, has called into question the accuracy of the revised lists. He said last week BH had already detected "tens of thousands of inaccuracies" in the electoral rolls, including bogus voters with the same date of birth simultaneously registered at multiple electoral districts
under slightly altered names.
Levon Zurabian, a prominent member of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress (HAK), pointed to an "abnormally" large number of households with 10 or more registered voters. He said HAK campaigners had also detected voters listed as residents
of nonexistent or abandoned apartments buildings in Yerevan.
In a bid to verify that the number of votes actually cast corresponds to the officially proclaimed turnout figure, BH, together with the HAK and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), has formally asked the Constitutional Court to annul the legal prohibition on publishing after the election the names of those persons who actually voted. The three parties joined forces last month to create an Inter-Party Center for Public Oversight of the Elections that intends to fight electoral fraud. The court is to consider their request on May 5.
Claims Of Vote-Buying
A second focus of opposition parties' shared apprehension is the anticipated recourse by the ruling party to vote-buying, primarily by wealthy businessmen running on the HHK ticket. (Ter-Petrossian indicated last week that the going rate is 5,000 drams, or $12.76). President Sarkisian has issued explicit instructions
to prosecutors to combat vote-buying, which he described as "a negative phenomenon that casts a shadow on the legitimacy of any election."
HHK spokesman Sharmazanov has categorically denied that his party seeks to "buy" votes in exchange for cash sums or the provision of services. At the same time, Sharmazanov defended the right of individual party members
who head charitable foundations to engage in charitable activities, providing they do not violate the law.
The fine line between benevolent activity and soliciting votes for material gain is on occasion a subjective one, however. It can and frequently is deliberately blurred by election participants seeking to discredit rival political parties. Spokesmen for BH Chairman Gagik Tsarukian, one of Armenia's wealthiest businessmen, have repeatedly denied media allegations in recent weeks that the distribution of dozens of tractors in rural districts by a company Tsarukian owns constitutes attempted vote-buying
Armenia's human rights ombudsman, Karen Andreassian, predicted in early April that the actual voting on May 6 would not be marred by large-scale fraud. He did not, however, exclude the possibility
of unspecified "pressure" on voters on polling day.
The assessments of the previous three Armenian parliamentary elections (in 1999, 2003, and 2007) by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights all differentiate between the relatively unproblematic and fair process of voting and far more serious violations during the vote count and tabulation. BH, as a member of the three-party body set up to combat fraud, plans to install video cameras in all of Armenia's 2,000 polling stations on election day to record both the voting and the vote count. "We consider this a very important oversight mechanism," Naira Zohrabian, who represents BH in the outgoing parliament and is running for reelection, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service