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Ruling Party Sweeps Yerevan Polls As Opposition Cries Foul

The Council of Europe's observers said the vote was an improvement on previous elections, though there were still "shortcomings."
(RFE/RL) -- President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) has swept to a landslide victory in municipal elections in Yerevan, which the two main opposition groups have denounced as fraudulent.

The Central Election Commission announced early on June 1 that with all of the ballots counted, the HHK won 47.4 percent of the vote, enough to reinstall its top candidate, Gagik Beglarian, as Yerevan's mayor. The Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), one of the HHK's two junior partners in the ruling coalition, came in a distant second with 22.7 percent.

Trailing the BHK was the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), which the official vote results showed getting 17.4 percent of the vote, well below its expectations.

Orinats Yerkir, the third party represented in Sarkisian's government, finished fourth with only 5.2 percent. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun), which was also part of the governing coalition until recently, fared even worse, getting about 4.7 percent, according to the commission.

With the vote threshold for single parties seeking to gain seats in Yerevan's Council of Elders set at 7 percent, this means that neither Orinats Yerkir nor Dashnaktsutiun will be represented in the new municipal assembly.

The Central Election Commission put voter turnout at over 53 percent. The highest turnout, more than 65 percent, was registered in the city's Malatia-Sebastia district, scene of the largest number of voting irregularities reported by the Armenian opposition, media, and independent observers.

The first vote results showing an HHK victory were released at around midnight following opposition allegations of widespread fraud during the May 31 voting. Levon Zurabian, an HAK leader, said the authorities have held "yet another criminal election."

Opposition Complaints

"Vote rigging had a systematic character," he told a news conference shortly after the closure of the polls on May 31.

Zurabian singled out vote buying as the most frequent form of fraud registered by the opposition. He also alleged widespread intimidation of and violence against opposition proxies at the polling stations.

"These elections were in no way different from the past elections held in Armenia," said Grigor Harutiunian, another leading HAK member.

The HAK's assessment of the election administration was shared by the opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party, which did not contest the vote but closely monitored its conduct.

"Our assessment is highly negative," Armen Martirosian, Zharangutiun's parliamentary leader, told RFE/RL. "We have botched the first election of the Yerevan council in a disgraceful fashion."

Martirosian decried "widespread" bussing of allegedly bribed voters by the two main governing parties. He said Zharangutiun has also registered "many instances of violence" and ballot-box stuffing. "I think the police performance today was a disaster," he added.

"I have a single word for what we experienced yesterday: shock," said Amalia Kostanian of the Center for Regional Development, the Armenian affiliate of Transparency International. "We are shocked. And we are people who have long monitored elections."

Observers: Improved, But Still Shortcomings

According to observers from the Council of Europe, the elections were largely democratic despite some "serious deficiencies."

"The overall organization of the elections has been broadly carried out in compliance with European standards," said Nigel Mermagen, the British head of the mission, in presenting its preliminary assessment of the polls.

Mermagen added that this represented "a considerable step forward in comparison to the local elections which took place in Yerevan in September 2008."

Mermagen did not elaborate on irregularities witnessed by members of his team, saying that they will be detailed in a final report to be submitted by October. More importantly, he made clear that his team believes those irregularities did not call into question the legitimacy of the official vote results.

Major Armenian elections have traditionally been monitored by hundreds of observers deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and its Warsaw-based Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. They did not observe the Yerevan polls, citing a lack of a formal invitation from the Armenian authorities.

For its part, President Serzh Sarkisian's HHK described the polls as largely free and fair. "Yes, there were some shortcomings, but by and large ballot stuffing, multiple voting, and other problems that existed in the electoral process were essentially absent today," said Eduard Sharmazanov, the HHK spokesman.

This view was echoed by the election commission, which is dominated by government loyalists. Speaking on state television, its chairman, Garegin Azarian, said the commission has investigated the opposition allegations and most of them proved false.

The Prosecutor-General's Office similarly said it has looked into some of the vote-buying claims and found them baseless. The BHK and Dashnaktsutiun, for their part, declined to comment on the authorities' handling of the elections. They said they will formulate their positions on June 1.