Prague, 28 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Despite a visible lack of public interest in the vote on constitutional reform, Armenia's Central Election Commission said today that voter turnout had been a healthy 64 percent. And according to a preliminary count, 93 percent had voted "Yes."
The figures have been greeted with derision by the opposition, which before the referendum had called for a boycott.
Anecdotal accounts from around the country lend some support to the claim that the turnout was generally low. They paint a picture of voter apathy and empty polling stations. However, solid evidence of fraud will be hard to come by, not least because so few international observers monitored the poll.
Vazgen Manukian, the leader of the opposition National Democratic Union, today described the referendum as a new stage in Armenian electoral manipulation.
"Two unprecedented things in my memory happened in Armenia today [27 November]. Both were expected, but both were unprecedented. Never before had polling stations been so empty.... The authorities also showed impudent cynicism in the way they rigged the elections. In previous years we never experienced such blatant cynicism. In my opinion it is a national, state betrayal," Manukian said.
The opposition boycotted the referendum on the grounds that the government that organized it has itself no legitimacy. It insists that President Kocharian has cheated his way to power through a succession of rigged presidential and parliamentary elections.
But opposition hopes that it could use the campaign against the referendum to mobilize popular opposition appear to have stumbled over popular apathy.
Last week, former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannissian urged Armenians to go beyond a boycott and join a campaign of "civil disobedience." The campaign was meant to begin with a rally in central Yerevan over the weekend. In the event, only around 1500 people reportedly turned up.
Defense Minister Serzh Sargsian could not resist the temptation to gloat. "If I organize any meeting and can not have at least 1,000 people there in attendance, I would not commit suicide, of course. But I would definitely be very ashamed and unable to look into people's eyes," Sargsian said.
The opposition's cause is not helped by the fact that, on this occasion, the international community appears solidly on the side of the government. The European Union, the Council of Europe, and the United States have all praised the proposed constitutional changes, which were agreed on after long consultations with the Armenian authorities.
On paper, at least, the changes will, if passed, transfer some presidential powers to parliament and the cabinet of ministers. They would also strengthen the judiciary, emphasize greater respect for human rights, and allow millions of diaspora Armenians to obtain citizenship of the South Caucasus state.
That was good enough for the president of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, Rene van der Linden. Last week, he threw the council's weight against the opposition by urging Armenians to participate in the vote. It was, he said, an opportunity for Armenians to show their commitment to Europe.
However, the Council of Europe today said the referendum was marred by "serious abuses." The council said its 14 observers witnessed instances of fraud, secrecy, and the stuffing of ballot boxes. It said the abuse put in doubt the "credibility" of the vote.