Unsurprisingly, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan emerged triumphant in a recent government referendum held in December. Many view the vote to reform the role of the country’s president and transform the government into a fully parliamentary republic as an attempt to extend the regime’s power. As a result of the constitutional referendum, the presidency will be reduced to a largely ceremonial role, while many of its powers will be transferred to the nation’s prime minister during the upcoming 2017-2018 electoral cycle. While this might seem like an odd move to outside observers, for Sargsyan, it is actually highly tactical.
The shift in power means that Sargsyan, who will not be legally eligible to stand for president after his term ends in 2018, will most likely maintain his dominant position in Armenian politics. If, as expected, he is elected prime minister in the 2017-18 parliamentary election, Sargsyan will enjoy the same powers he holds now.
Opponents of the referendum, the self-styled ‘ոչ’ (Armenian for “No”) campaign, claim that it was designed solely for the purpose of maintaining the country’s political status quo. For its part, the government, which is led by the ruling Republican Party, presented the referendum as a much-needed constitutional reform designed to modernize the former Soviet nation.
Allegations of Intimidation
In the build-up to the vote, opponents claimed intimidation and spin were being used to push the constitutional amendments forward. Pro-government groups pressured journalists and media outlets into supporting the referendum. One online video shared by the Armenian branch of Radio Free Europe showed people being threatened, blocked, and manhandled by regime supporters. Incidents like this were reported in various forms across the country.
Activists opposed to the reforms also found themselves marginalized and under threat when pro-government groups began targeting individuals that publicly supported the “No” campaign with online threats and physical intimidation during the vote. When I spoke to Vardan Hambardzumyan, a volunteer election observer and active opponent of the proposed reforms, he told me about his experience with government-supported intimidation. “I experienced physical violence by committee members and received death threats from a Republican Party representative,” he said.
Intimidation was, however, not the only tactic used, as many voters and officials found their work impeded by disruptive behavior from regime supporters. “[One party representative] was drunk and was continually trying to engage in conversations [with those working at the polls], hindering our work,” Hambardzumyan told me. While drunken antics might seem comical in other circumstances, Hambardzumyan believed that more sinister forces were at work, and that the incident was a purposeful attempt to distract poll workers from doing their jobs. Experiences like Hambardzumyan’s were echoed by other campaigners and observers I spoke with.
The “Carousel” Vote
Across the country, election observers reported fraud and malpractice on an incredible scale. About the government’s vote-rigging, “it was like a joke to them, they knew we knew,” claimed one observer, a twenty-three-year-old medical student who asked that her name be withheld.
On Twitter, government opponents documented a seemingly endless stream of undemocratic behavior. Numerous photos taken and posted online, as well as other anecdotal evidence publicized by election observers, revealed acts of blatant and unapologetic electoral fraud. Transparency International Armenia, a campaign devoted to fighting corruption in the country, also disseminated what appears to be photographic evidence of individuals caught in the act of “vote carouselling” (the process of cycling a group of individuals through different polling stations to vote multiple times).
Among the many acts of fraud, false ballots were a particular concern. According to reports, some votes were cast by individuals thought to be deceased. In one particularly troubling case, members of a family murdered by a Russian soldier in January 2015 in the city of Gyumri were among those thought to have “voted” in the referendum.
The fraudulent votes are likely to have made a big difference in the election results. One polling station reportedly had 800 more voters than residents registered in the area (a huge number considering Armenia’s tiny population of 3 million).
The government’s claim to victory has also been questioned by large international organizations, including the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe, which raised various concerns over the legitimacy of the vote in a statement issued on December 7th. The country’s official opposition also announced a daylong boycott of parliament in response to the vote. The opposition Armenian National Congress (ANC) party has also raised concerns with the referendum with the constitutional court.
Despite this overwhelming condemnation, the government has shown little sign of addressing criticism about the vote, and, instead, seems more inclined to smear its opponents. Shortly after the results were announced, officials from the Republican Party branded critics as politically-motivated and claimed that no violations had taken place during the referendum.
The Obstacles to Reform
It is unclear, at this point, how Sargysan’s continued influence over Armenian politics might affect the country. What is clear, however, is that the current political establishment has no intentions of leaving quietly. As the regime continues to consolidate power and strengthen its oligarchy, many Armenians are disturbed by the unfolding events.
“I am convinced that the elections were faked through carousels,” said Hambardzumyan. His view reflects a sentiment held by many progressive Armenians, who are disappointed and angry that this election has undermined the democratic ideals they have fought so hard for. On his blog, “Unzipped”, Armenian blogger Mika summarized these feelings “This referendum served only one goal: regime survival.”
While many Armenians remain committed to exercising their democratic right to vote, it is obvious real change in the country is not something that will be easily earned.