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Poll Violence Alleged in Armenia

Government-backed candidate beats opposition in reportedly flawed election.
By Gayane Mkrtchyan
A small party, apparently supported by the Armenian government, won a by-election on January 10, seeing off a challenge from a jailed activist amid allegations of violence against the opposition.



But the turn-out was a tiny 24 per cent, suggesting that even the challenge of opposition journalist Nikol Pashinyan – the first time an Armenian has run for election from behind bars – had failed to inspire a cynical electorate.



Ara Simonyan, a candidate from the pro-government National Unity party, won the poll in Yerevan’s 10th electoral district, with 7,622 votes to Pashinyan’s 5,023. The third candidate – Davit Hakobyan, head of the Marxist Party of Armenia – received just 299 votes.



The turn-out of less than a quarter, compared with 53 per cent in the 2007 general election, was disappointing for all parties.



“Even the politicised part of the population did not take part in the election, and this shows that the voters have no hopes for these by-elections. The politicised electorate in the centre of the city is boycotting the elections, and this is very dangerous for the country,” said Viktor Dallayan, an independent member of the Armenian parliament.



President Serzh Sargsyan’s Republican Party, which controls parliament, did not take part in the by-election. The opposition Armenian National Congress, however, which was supporting Pashinyan, and independent observers said the conduct of the poll was biased towards the winner, who had the full support of the government.



Arthur Sakunts, of the Helsinki Civil Assembly which monitored the polling process, said Armenian elections had become a formality and had been so ever since the early 1990s. He said the electorate’s dissatisfaction was visible in the low turn-out.



“Now this tradition has been perfected, using administrative and legal levers,” he said.



Repeated attempts to seek comment from government and city officials failed, but Artashes Geghamyan, leader of the National Unity Party, insisted the vote was free and fair and that his supporters were not responsible for violent attacks on opposition members reported on polling day.



Geghamyan also thanked the three parties represented in Armenia’s government for facilitating his candidate’s victory.



Pashinyan, editor of the Armenian Times, was arrested in July last year after more than a year on the run. He has been accused of a role in organising the mass protests that greeted the election of Sargsyan, and which occupied the centre of the capital until broken up by police on March 1, 2008.



He spent the whole campaign period in detention, his campaign masterminded by political allies. He accused the government of rigging the vote, saying it was a farce that an unknown like Simonyan could win so easily.



“The voting was accompanied by shameful violence, threats, frauds, unplanned closing of polling stations, and these processes continued in conditions of direct or hidden cover from the organs of state, which are obliged to assure the legality of elections,” he said in an angry statement released after the votes were counted.



“As a candidate taking part in the elections of January 10, I regret that I cannot congratulate the man recognised as the victor in the preliminary results, for the reason that the majority of citizens coming to the polling stations did not even know him.”



Various groups sent missions to observe the election, including Armenia’s Young Conservatives, which said it recorded cases of pressure on voters, threats, restrictions on the rights of journalists and observers, and more. It said the authorities seemed incapable of organising a legal election.



In one fight, which took place near polling station 10/09, three members of Pashinyan’s team – including Petros Makeyan, the head of his election staff - were injured. Makeyan said they had been attacked by a group of men with shaved heads.



“And the police officers, instead of stopping the skinheads, held us by the arms, so they could beat us,” he said.



The police disputed the account, saying Makeyan and his allies had themselves attacked a group from Simonyan’s team and took themselves to hospital with the injuries they received as a result.



Police refused to comment on other allegations of irregularities on polling day.



Journalists also complained of their treatment. During a scuffle at polling station 10/19, photographer Gagik Shamshyan said he was punched, while unknown assailants reportedly tried to break a Radio Liberty journalist’s microphone. The chairmen of several polling stations refused to allow reporters inside, saying they would interfere with the electoral process.



Sakunts remarked on the failure of the mainstream media to cover the electoral race.



“Television did not cover this election at all. The population was under an information blockade. The television channels not only refused to report anything on the electoral campaign of the opposition candidate, but also did not report at all on the elections,” he said.



But the channels themselves said there was a simple explanation for the lack of coverage, and that was that most of their employees were on holiday enjoying the New Year break, meaning television could not give the elections the attention they deserved.



“This was not political antipathy, and I can even say I am good friends with Nikol. The only reason for the lack of coverage of the campaign was the holidays,” said Gegham Manukyan, head of new programmes at broadcaster Erkir-Media.



Gayane Mkrtchyan is a journalist from Armenianow.com.