Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Armenian News... A Topalian... Voters opt for more of the same

Armenia: Voters Opt for More of the Same
Marianna Grigoryan

April 3, 2017    
Armenia’s governing party consolidated its grip on power following parliamentary elections marred by widespread allegations of vote-buying and voter intimidation.

The governing Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) was the clear victor in the April 2 elections, as expected, winning over 49 percent of the vote and an apparent absolute majority of seats in parliament (55 out of 105). An alliance led by populist oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan was the runner-up with 27 percent of the vote. Two other parties secured seats in the legislature: the Yelk Alliance won just under 8 percent of the vote; and the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation, just under 7 percent.

Another bloc, featuring political heavyweights like former defense minister Seyran Ohanian, 2013 presidential contender Raffi Hovannissian, and former foreign minister Vartan Oskanian, won just over 2 percent and will not be represented in the new parliament.

The Central Election Commission reported that turnout was about 61 percent.

A number of irregularities were reported on Election Day, including an instance in which at least two reporters were attacked as they pursued apparent cases of vote-buying.

Despite the strong indicators of skullduggery, RPA officials sounded a triumphal note in reacting to the results. “This was a victory by all political forces, civil society, by our citizens, indeed, this is not a step, but rather a leap forward,” said Armen Ashotyan, deputy head of the RPA.

These elections were significant in that they set the terms for a new parliamentary system of government, under which executive power is diminished and the authority of the legislative branch is enhanced. The new parliament will elect a largely figurehead president in 2018 when the term of the incumbent, Serzh Sargsyan, runs out. Under the new arrangement, the prime minister will be head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

“Armenia is moving to a new administrative system, and it’s extremely important that these elections instill trust in Armenian citizens and all our partners,” Sargsyan said at a meeting of the observation mission delegation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Sargsyan’s post-2018 plans remain unclear, but critics have argued that the constitutional changes pave the way for him to consolidate power, either by becoming prime minister himself, or by enabling him to continue to wield power behind the scenes.

The CIS monitors gave the elections rave reviews. The conditions under which the vote took place “exceeded even Western countries, who were teaching us how to correctly organize elections,” said Sergey Lebedev, the head of the mission.

Other outside observers were less impressed. “The elections were tainted by credible information about vote-buying, and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies. This contributed to an overall lack of public confidence and trust in the elections,” said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election monitoring mission in its preliminary assessment.

The vote itself was “well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected,” the OSCE statement added.

The leader of the Yelk Alliance, Edmon Marukyan, said that, according to his party’s observations, their vote count was accurate. “So we have no reason not to accept the results,” he told the Armenian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Local rights activists complained that the vote, like many others before it in Armenia, was corrupted by vote-buying and intimidation. The elections represented “the victory of perversion of all democratic institutions,” said Avetik Ishkhanian, a prominent human rights activist and the head of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia.

The RPA enjoyed a big advantage over its electoral rivals, given the large numbers of Armenians who work in state-sector jobs, including teachers, healthcare workers and soldiers. “They [state-sector employees] depend on the government, they have to” vote for it, analyst Ruben Mehrabyan told EurasiaNet. “Considering this, we need to prepare for the next elections starting today, taking all that into account.”

These parliamentary elections saw the introduction of new electronic equipment, including fingerprint scanners, intended to reduce voter fraud. But a few experts said the equipment may have enabled, in some instances, nefarious practices. Many voters were convinced that the fingerprint scanners recorded information about who they voted for. “And it worked, people were scared of those devices,” said analyst Armen Badalyan.

Party activists intent on skewing the results appear to have played on voters’ concerns, Badalyan alleged. “They said that if you took money from the RPA or some other political group and if you dared to vote for someone else, we will see that,” Badalyan said.

The election results were cause for cynicism among many Armenians.

Many thought that they would wake up in a new Armenia but things went the same way they always do,” Narine Galstyan, a 33-year-old linguist in Yerevan, told EurasiaNet.org. “They have to accept the situation, or understand that other methods are necessary for change.”

Editor's note: Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Armenia and editor of MediaLab.am.

Business Standard
Ruling party wins 'milestone' Armenia vote
April 3, 2017
Armenia's pro-Russian ruling party has won the first legislative elections held since the adoption of constitutional reforms that are transforming the country into a parliamentary republic, official results released today showed.

With votes tallied from 99.8 per cent of precincts, the central electoral commission said President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party beat the main opposition coalition, led by wealthy politician Gagik Tsarukyan, by 49.15 to 27.37 per cent.

"According to the elections' early results, the Republican Party has every chance of forming the new government," the party's spokesman, Eduard Sharmazanov, told a news conference.

Another opposition coalition, Elk, and the Dashnaktsutyun nationalist party received 7.78 per cent and 6.58 per cent of the vote respectively and will also enter the parliament.

Turnout was 60.86 per cent, the electoral panel said.

The West views Armenia's election as a key democratic test for the landlocked nation of 2.9 million, which has no history of transferring power to the opposition through the ballot box.

The pro-Russian Sarkisian has said his government "made enormous efforts so that (the) milestone vote is flawless."

Violence flared following his election in 2008, with 10 people killed in clashes between police and opposition supporters.

But opposition politicians have reported violations at polling stations after previously warning that the government is preparing mass electoral fraud.

"We have recorded numerous violations at polling stations -- violation of ballots' secrecy and multiple voting," Hovsep Khurshudyan, a leader of Ohanyan-Raffi-Oskanyan, an opposition coalition, told AFP on Sunday night.

Before the vote, the EU delegation to Armenia and the US embassy said in a joint statement they were "concerned by allegations of voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties."

The polls followed constitutional amendments initiated by Sarkisian in 2015 that his opponents say are designed to perpetuate the rule of the Republican party, which has been in power for the last two decades.

The amendments will shift the country away from a strong presidency to a parliamentary form of government after Sarkisian's second and final term ends in 2018.

The opposition says the changes were made to allow Sarkisian, 62, to maintain his grip on power by remaining party leader after he steps down as president.

Sarkisian denies that, saying the changes are "part of Armenia's democratisation process."

Ahead of the vote, Sarkisian told AFP he would remain "active" in politics after he left office by remaining the leader of his party.

"As chairman of the Republican Party, I assume responsibility for my teammates," he said when asked about his post-2018 future.

Both ruling and opposition parties had campaigned on populist promises such as "jobs, wages, pensions," Gevorg Poghosyan, a pollster at the Armenian Sociologists' Association, told AFP.

"That's what matters to the voters" in a country where about 30 percent of the population live under the official poverty line, he said.

Opposition coalition leader Tsarukyan has built his campaign on lavish promises to cut tariffs on natural gas and electricity and hike public-sector salaries and pensions. He accuses the government of failing to address poverty and endemic corruption.

Five parties and four electoral blocs ran in Sunday's vote, with 101 parliamentary seats up for grabs under a system of proportional representation.

A party needs to clear a five-percent threshold to be represented in parliament, while an electoral bloc -- an entity made up of several parties -- needs to garner at least seven percent of the vote.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

OSCE says Armenian parliamentary election had flaws
April 3 2017 

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on Monday criticized Armenia's weekend election, saying it had been tainted by instances of vote-buying and interference.

The OSCE said in a statement the parliamentary election on Sunday had been well-administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected. But it added that they had been marked by organizational problems and undue interference in the process, mostly by party representatives.

It also noted some pressure on civil servants as well as private sector employees.

With 100 percent of the vote already counted, official results show the ruling Republican Party has won the election with 49.12 percent.

(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; editing by Sujata Rao)

Global Voice Online
April 3 2017
Pre-Vote Shenanigans — And Fake News — Cloud Armenia's General Election 

The Republican party loyal to outgoing Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan looked set to score a win in polls held on April 2, but the vote was stymied by a series of alleged violations, apparent government attempts to thwart the online activities of journalists and activists, and at least one incident of fake news.

The election is important as far as constitutional changes passed in 2015 mean that Armenia's president will be elected by parliament, while the office of the prime minister has become the most powerful in the country. Election results had not yet been announced at the time of publication, but exit polls indicated a substantial lead by Sargsyan.

Sargsyan has said that the changes he lobbied for in the controversial referendum were not intended to benefit him, although some expect him to take up the premier's position if his party earns itself a majority in parliament.

Watching the vote intently was Russia, and a number of journalists based in the country and the broader Caucasus region flagged a fake news item spread by Twitter accounts that appeared bot-ish with a strong pro-Kremlin agenda.

The image distributed by the accounts was a purported USAID memo calling on civic groups to back the opposition. Washington's representatives in Armenia had earlier labeled the memo as a fake , but it began circulating once more on the eve of the vote.

Regardless of whether or not Moscow, which backs Sargsyan, was behind the disinformation, there is also plenty of evidence of local attempts to manipulate the vote.

One prominent civil society figure, Babken DerGrigorian reported notifications from Google that government-backed hackers were attempting to hack his email account, while several leading journalists found their access to Twitter suspended just prior to the vote.

They later had their accounts restored following a concerted campaign by Armenian Twitter users.

In a round-up of these concerning reports, the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab produced an informative brief titled Fakes, Bots, and Blocking in Armenia . The piece concluded:

With a landmark vote imminent, Armenia’s online space is particularly vulnerable to manipulation and disinformation. The attempts identified so far have been small scale and of limited reach, but they illustrate the various ways in which online actors can attempt to manipulate the digital space.

Around a third of citizens in the South Caucasus republic of 3 million people live in poverty. In 2015, the capital Yerevan was rocked by protests over a utility hike that came to be christened as Electric Yerevan and revealed massive dissatisfaction over endemic corruption in the country.

Armenian Evangelical Church of Alfortville Attacked

A fire erupted in the Armenian Evangelical Church of Alfortville at around 6 a.m. on the morning of April 2 in what is being described as an arson attack—the third attack on the church in the last 12 months.

Arson Attack on the Church is the Third Incident in Last 12 Months

ALFORTVILLE, France (Armenian Weekly)—A fire erupted in the Armenian Evangelical Church of Alfortville at around 6 a.m. on the morning of April 2, in what is being described as an arson attack—the third attack on the church in the last 12 months.

According to reports, the flames woke Pastor Gilbert Léonian and his wife, who live in the first floor of the building.

Though no injuries reported in the incident, Léonian said that the two were shocked to wake up to the fire. The church’s entrance also sustained substantial damage as a result.

According to reports, a trash bin in front of the church was deliberately set on fire. Firefighters arrived on scene on time to stop the spread of the fire to the rest of the building.

Eight days earlier, stones were thrown against the facade of the church causing some damage. Léonian became the pastor of the church 18 months ago and leads the congregation of about 30 people.

The Mayor of Alfortville Luc Carvounas was quick to condemn the attack and expressed his solidarity with the church’s congregation and leadership.

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