Armenian vote boosts prime minister's powers, opposition cry foul

Armenian vote boosts prime minister's powers, opposition cry foul

YEREVAN - Reuters
Armenian vote boosts prime ministers powers, opposition cry foul

Armenia's President Serzh Sargsyan casts his ballot during a referendum on constitutional changes in Yerevan, Armenia, December 6, 2015. REUTERS Photo

Armenians voted in a referendum to boost the prime minister's powers, results showed on Dec. 7, a move supporters say will bolster stability but opponents warn will entrench the ruling party's control over the ex-Soviet state.

Observers from the Council of Europe rights group reported there had been problems with the voting lists and other irregularities - and said a low turnout suggested many voters saw Sunday's referendum as a piece of political manoeuvring. 

The ruling Republican party, which called the vote, was not immediately available for comment. 

The changes, due to come into force after elections in May 2017, will broadly curb the role of the historically-powerful president and give more authority to the prime minister and parliament. 

The opposition say the changes are a ruse to let President Serzh Sarksyan slip into an enhanced prime ministerial role at the head of the Republican Party after his presidential term ends in 2018. He has regularly denied this. 

Opposition activists took to the streets of capital Yerevan overnight, many saying there had been polling violations. Police stopped crowds trying to reach the central election commission's office. 

"What happened yesterday during the vote is a treason," one of the opposition leaders, Raffi Hovannisian, said in the early hours of Monday morning in the city's central square. 

Just short of two thirds - 63.35 percent - of people who did vote supported the proposed changes to the constitution in Sunday's referendum, according to preliminary results, easily more than the simple majority needed. 

Observers from the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), said the relatively low turn-out, around 50 percent of the voting population, reflected the fact that "the referendum was driven by political interests instead of the needs of the Armenian public and was perceived by many citizens as a vote of confidence in the government." 

The PACE monitors also said there had been violations, including inaccurate voting lists, allegations of large-scale organised vote buying and the misuse of administrative resources by executive bodies. It did not say who had made those allegations. 

"The delegation urges the authorities to address these issues in order to build trust in the voting process and in politics in general to ensure a genuinely democratic future for Armenia," PACE said in a statement. 

Under the changes, the president will no longer be elected by popular vote, but by parliament. The winner will stay in the job for seven years instead of the current five, but will only have largely ceremonial powers.