Playing with Fire: After the Presidential Elections in Armenia

February 25, 2013

On February 18, 2013, Armenia elected its new president. According to official information, the incumbent Serzh Sargsyan received 58.64 % of the vote and his closest opponent – Raffi Hovhannisian – 36.75 %. The defeated candidate now demands revision of the election results, and is organizing rallies.

In a stable democracy, the defeated candidate is expected to congratulate the winner. Both then attempt either to work together or to begin preparations for the next election cycle. Both scenarios are not working in Armenia.

A clear dichotomy has characterized all Armenian elections since independence. In particular, whereas in 1991, 1998, and 2008 citizens voted FOR the future; in 1996 and 2003 they voted AGAINST the incumbent president.

In 1996 Armenia became the first state in the post-Soviet space that tried to implement a “color revolution.” After announcement of the presidential election results, the supporters of Vazgen Manukyan (41.3% of the vote), who ran against the incumbent President Levon Ter-Petrossian (51.75% of the vote), organized rallies. After several days of peaceful demonstrations, Manukyan’s supporters marched to the Parliament building and demanded a recount. The police and the army then broke up this demonstration, thereby suspending the attempt to transfer power peacefully. Since then, similar protests against the outcomes of parliamentary and presidential elections have occurred on a regular basis. These elections were evaluated by international observers and oppositional forces variously as corrupt, fraudulent, and unfair.

Post-election disturbances in February, 2008, reached a high point of intensity. The race between Serzh Sargsyan (52.82% of the vote) and Levon Ter-Petrossian (21.50%) was resolved in a very tragic manner on March 1, 2008. After two weeks of peaceful rallies in the center of Yerevan, tensions escalated into open conflict. This event is considered as constituting post-Soviet Armenia’s most severe political crisis. Clashes between protesters and the police, which led to 10 deaths, affected not only the image of Armenia, but also its economy: several development programs, sponsored by USAID and other international agencies, were withdrawn or suspended.

President Sargsyan was highly concerned in his first term in office to establish an overall climate of trust and fairness for the 2013 election. However, the main political forces, such as the Armenian National Congress coalition, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktutyun, Prosperous Armenia Party, and the Rule of Law Party, sought to transform the election into a farce — and they have succeeded. Hovhannisian, despite his status as one of the most controversial oppositional figures, received almost 37% of the vote, as noted. Interestingly, a Gallup poll conducted among decided voters between January 25 and February 2 predicted that he would receive only 11%. The poll conducted January 24-29 by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion concluded that his candidacy would receive no more than 27% of the vote. How did Hovannisian manage to do so much better than predicted?

Several factors must be noted. First, a growing general disillusionment has pushed a section of the population to vote in recent elections not FOR the future, but AGAINST the powers that be. Second, a viable opposition candidate did not appear (even Levon Ter-Petrosyan could not consolidate his Armenian National Congress). Third, no candidate articulated a political, economic, or social program that could stand as a clear alternative to the program of the incumbent; rather, broad populist slogans and empty gestures dominated the campaign. Lastly, a public debate between the candidates was lacking.

Mr. Hovannisian, who had been simply ignored by the leaders of the major parties for many years, benefitted enormously from this unfortunate scenario. His candidacy acquired the support of a disenchanted and weary electorate. Indeed, Mr. Hovannisian’s continued unwillingness to concede defeat now appears to be taking on a missionary tenor. Ironically, his stronger opponents from across the political spectrum now offered their support not to him personally, but to “the people.”

However, one must be cautious. Not least, his appeal before the election — “I will recognize the independence of Nagorno Karabakh” — was altered significantly after the election: he now calls for unification of Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia. His position poses a clear danger to efforts undertaken in common by Armenia and the (unrecognized) Nagorno Karabakh Republic to receive international support and to implement the NKR’s right to self-determination. Cooler voices, aware of both internal conditions and regional configurations as of tinderbox intensity, see his most recent speeches and gestures as a dance with fire.

My homeland and my people are capable of making the right choice. I want to believe that those at the helm will remain calm and pragmatic. The Hovhannisian phenomenon should be considered as an alarm bell. It should awaken authorities to take consistent and measured steps to settle the political climate and to improve economic conditions. Let us hope that relations between those in power and in the opposition will be more constructive in the future – for the sake of the Armenian people, the Armenian state, and a stable democracy.