Armenian opposition parties contemplate co-operation ahead of presidential elections in 2013.

Opposition legislators in Armenia have called for a special session of parliament to discuss possible amendments to the Electoral Code, the Criminal Code and the Law on the State Registration of the Population.

The amendments, hopes the opposition, will be “instrumental in preventing fraud” in the upcoming Presidential election in February 2013. Of particular salience is the proposed amendment to exclude Armenian citizens who have lived outside of Armenia for more than six month from the electoral lists. “We suggest that from now on only citizens who are in the territory of Armenia should be included in the electoral roll. All those who are absent from Armenia for more than six months must be excluded from this roll,” said Levon Zurabian, the leader of the Armenian National Congress (ANC) representatives in the National Assembly.

The ANC says it has secured the necessary 44 out of 131 signatures from minority lawmakers from the Prosperous Armenia Party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the Free Democrats and the Heritage party. According to the opposition, “the presence of up to 700,000 such citizens helped the government commit electoral fraud and secure a landslide victory” in the parliamentary elections of May 2012.

The ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), however, has denied these allegations and called the actions of the minority parties “political show.” Galust Sahakian, RPA parliamentary leader, told journalists on Friday that neither his party nor its coalition partner, Orinats Yerkir, which together hold over half of the seats in parliament, would participate in what he described as the “senseless activities” of the opposition parties. If neither of the coalition parties participate in the 21 November special session, then quorum will not be reached and the meeting will not be able to proceed. Sahakian said the ANC action supported by the other three parties in parliament was “an attempt to boost their political activity in the run-up to next year’s presidential election.” These feelings were echoed by RPA parliamentarian Eduard Sharmanazov, who stated, “I don’t think that the opposition’s agenda will be backed by 66 deputies, which is the requirement of the law.”

Moreover, both the ruling coalition and electoral officials argue that these amendments would be a violation of the constitutional rights of citizens in Armenia. In current legislation, voting may only take place in Armenia which requires those Armenians living abroad to return to the country to cast their ballot. If this right were to be repealed these citizens would be left without the ability to exercise their franchise.

Regardless the opposition feels that the governing parties should at least show up to the debate. As Hrant Bagratian, a representative with the ANC, put it, it would be a “disgrace” for the governing parties to fail to attend next Wednesday’s session. “I don’t think it is right and becoming of the Republican Party,” he said. Naira Zohrabian of the Prosperous Armenia Party also expressed her dismay at the government’s reaction stating that, “If they find that even discussing this draft legislation is so terrifying, then I have no words.”

According to the OSCE/ODIHR Final Report on the May 2012 parliamentary elections in Armenia, for the first time in the last elections Armenian citizens residing abroad who were in Armenia on election day were allowed to participate in the proportional part of the elections. These voters had to register at least seven days in advance of the election with a local electoral precinct. OSCE/ODIHR lists 1,256 voters being added to the list through this mechanism.

Of greater concern, however, as noted in the OSCE/ODIHR report was the fact that Armenians residing abroad who do not register with the Armenian consular service abroad remain on the voters’ list registered in their last known address in Armenia. Add to this the fact that the Armenian voters’ list increased by 170,000 since 2008, which, according to elections authorities, is a result of citizens turning 18 since 2008 and the granting of citizenship to persons in the Armenian diaspora.

All of the minority parties have begun to conduct both private and public party consultations across the country concerning the above amendments, the possibilities of moving from the current system to a much stronger parliamentary model of governance as well as the opportunity to field a single candidate to challenge incumbent president and RPA candidate Serzh Sargsyan next February. After private meetings held between the PAP and the ANC, rumours are gaining momentum that the opposition will align their support behind a single candidate.

Without giving anything away, Levon Zurabian, of the ANC, said upon leaving the meeting, “I think that this possibility cannot be ruled out.” Vartan Oskanian, a senior politician and former Foreign Minister with the PAP also alluded to a potential collaboration between the two parties. “I can say that there are at least similarities. For now we will not speak about details, there are no agreements yet… This is only a beginning,” said Oskanian. Though nothing has been confirmed, there are clear signals that the opposition parties in the National Assembly are finding common ground upon which to unite. Perhaps a single candidate is still just a far off idea, but cooperation on electoral and political reform might be the engines that drive these parties to the next stage.

Report prepared for CEW by Karina Gould.