While the president of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, continues to receive congratulatory letters from world leaders on his re-election after the February 18th vote, the main opposition candidate Raffi Hovannisian disputes the outcome of the elections claiming that he is the elected president, holding rallies attended by his thousands of supporters in Yerevan, as well as the regions of the country.
Armenia's Central Election Commission (CEC) announced last Tuesday that Sargsyan garnered about 59 per cent of the vote in Monday’s presidential election and Hovannisian came in second with almost 37 per cent. Hrant Bagratyan, another opposition candidate, got almost 2.2 per cent, according to the CEC. Seven candidates participated in the presidential contest.
An emerging opposition leader
Sargsyan’s re-election was widely anticipated during the campaign period as the main political forces of Armenia (the opposition alliance Armenian National Congress, “Prosperous Armenia”, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation parties) had decided not to participate in the election, stating that the vote wouldn't be free and fair, and changing Armenia’s government through elections has become impossibledue to chronic vote rigging by the authorities (Sargsyan came to power in 2008 after deadly clashes in Yerevan between opposition supporters and the authorities. During violent clashes on March 1st 2008, ten people were killed). Sargsyan is also the president of ruling Republican Party which has 70 seats in the 131-member parliament (National Assembly).
Hovannisian’s 37 per cent was a surprise for many. The 53-year-old US-born lawyer served as the first foreign minister of independent Armenia and now leads the Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, which has only four seats in the parliament. This is the first time he has participated in a presidential election, and has been ineligible to run for president until now, due to failing to meet the 10-year citizenship requirement of candidates. In the 2008 election, he threw his political weight behind Levon Ter-Petrosyan, independent Armenia’s first president emerging from a decade-long political obscurity on a strong opposition platform.
Hovannisian has previously stated that he would only be a presidential candidate once and “never again”. He conducted a “western style” campaign mainly walking and greeting people in the streets, saying “hello” and calling Armenians to be free while voting for their candidate. Some political experts believe his campaign brought some success because people started to truly like the candidate, who walks without bodyguards and casually chats with them. Other experts think his votes broadly reflect the general discontent of the Armenian people with the ruling authorities.
“After garnering almost 37 per cent of the vote, Raffi Hovannisian has emerged as the opposition leader in the Armenian post-election context. He is probably not the most natural opposition leader, but in many ways it is more of a reflection about anti-government discontent, unhappiness in general and the dissatisfaction with the political system, than it is about the direct support of Hovannisian personally,” says Richard Giragosian, the director of Regional Studies Center, a think tank based in Yerevan. Giragosian believes this presidential race was more about “a competition of strong personalities rather than a healthy competition of ideas”.
“And we saw a missed opportunity for a deeper strengthening of democracy and democratic credentials. However, in the broader context, both the May 2012 parliamentary elections and this presidential election were an improvement compared to previous elections. The scale and scope of the improvement in the conduct of the election, however, was insufficient and not enough to meet rising expectations,” Giragosian says.
Hovannisian now challenges the credibility of the CEC figures referring to numerous registered cases of election fraud; mostly ballot stuffing, misuse of administrative resources, and pressure on voters. Hovannisian gathered his supporters on Tuesday 19th in Yerevan’s Liberty Square and said he was “already the elected president of the Republic of Armenia”, calling on the incumbent to come down to Liberty Square and discuss “the transfer of power to the Armenian people”.
Of course, Serzh Sargsyan never showed up and on Thursday 21st, Hovannisian walked to the presidential palace to have a tête-à-tête meeting with President Sargsyan. The next day Hovannisian told his supporters that he is committed to continuing a fight after all his offers of compromise have been rejected by President Serzh Sargsyan. He said all of his offers made to Sargsyan, including concession of people’s victory, the appointment of new elections or a run-off, punishment of all election falsifiers, and even holding fresh parliamentary elections according to an all-proportional system of representation, have been rejected. Hovannisian said he would start touring cities and villages where he polled ahead of Sargsyan in the election.
On Saturday 23rd, Hovannisian was especially warmly met in Gyumri, the second largest city of Armenia where he polled up to 70 per cent. The rallies will continue. Hovannisian said his campaign (already dubbed as BAREVolution, a blend Armenian/English word which means a revolution of greetings) could last “a week, a month or a year”, but he assured the people that he would not give it up.
Meanwhile the Armenian authorities claim that February 18th vote was the cleanest in the history of independent Armenia. The Armenian election conduct was generally praised by the United States and the European Union, which basically means a further boost for the international legitimacy of Sargsyan’s re-election, and should also pave the way for Armenia’s deeper integration with the EU. (Armenia and the EU are negotiating a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement [DCFTA], which will be part of a comprehensive Association Agreement also being negotiated at present).
The EU’s foreign and security policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and commissioner for enlargement, Štefan Füle, called the election conduct “a step forward.”
“We welcome further progress made by the Armenian authorities in their efforts to hold these presidential elections in line with international standards, notably through improved administration of the electoral process, ensuring possibilities for candidates to campaign freely and a better quality of the voter lists,” Ashton and Füle said in a joint statement two days after the election.
The US, too, sounded very optimistic about the conduct of the election. “The United States congratulates the people of Armenia on their February 18 presidential elections, which were judged by international observers to be generally well-administered and characterised by a respect for fundamental freedoms, including those of assembly and expression,” the US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a written statement.
Western observers gave a mainly positive assessment of Armenia’s presidential election and said major irregularities witnessed by them did not affect its outcome. A joint statement by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament (EP) reads: “The 18 February presidential election was generally well-administered and was characterised by a respect for fundamental freedoms. Contestants were able to campaign freely. Media fulfilled their legal obligation to provide balanced coverage, and all contestants made use of their free airtime. At the same time, a lack of impartiality of the public administration, misuse of administrative resources, and cases of pressure on voters were of concern. While the election day was calm and orderly, it was marked by undue interference in the process, mainly by proxies representing the incumbent, and some serious violations were observed.”
Armenian political and election expert Armen Badalyan says the positive assessments of western and CIS country observer groups are only connected with the political interest of the West and Russia, Armenia’s strategic partner. “When it suits them they say the elections were free and fair, when it doesn't suit them they can say elections were not free and fair. This is just realpolitik,” Badalyan says, adding that Serzh Sargsyan is “a suitable politician for both the West and Russia because he is easy to control”.
Badalyan is very sceptical about the possible political change in Armenia. “Post-election developments are over regardless of Raffi Hovannisian’s rallies throughout the country. He just conducted a role of sociologist to find out the number of oppositional mass. There are several conditions for serious post-election developments and possible power change. First, you need to have a strong party which has acting branches in the whole territory of the country. It is not a secret that Heritage is not a strong party. Secondly, you should have the obvious support of geopolitical centres. The West and Russia have already accepted the vote outcome and congratulated Sargsyan. And thirdly, you should have big financial and media resources to achieve a success which Hovannisian again lacks,” Badalyan says.
Giragosian in his turn thinks this election in Armenia is a closing chapter of a certain political era and paves a way for a new, younger political leadership in 2018. “I think the only significant part of the election is the beginning of a political transition where in many ways, although re-elected to a second term, the president has no successor and is the last of a specific political elite; the last of an elite that came to power from Nagorno-Karabakh and acquired political power because of Nagorno-Karabakh as an unresolved conflict [between Armenia and Azerbaijan]. We will see the transition post-Sargsyan in the next presidential contest for a leadership that is no longer from Nagorno-Karabakh and probably defined by a new generation of younger people who rose through the Armenian government not because of the Karabakh conflict,” he says.
Giragosian also thinks Sargsyan’s re-election means a deeper relationship with the EU. “We saw much of his first term spent in deepening ties with the West and the US, and especially with the European Union, while injecting a greater degree of balance in contrast to Armenia’s strategic relationship with Russia. This will only continue. There is little alternative nor is there any real threat from the Eurasian Union,” Giragosian says.
Siranuysh Gevorgyan is an Armenian journalist based in Yerevan.