Sorting Through Armenia's Contested Election

The results are in. But should they be trusted?

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Election officials count ballots after polls closed at a polling station in Yerevan, on February 18, 2013. (David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters)

According to the official preliminary returns, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian won reelection for a second term in the February 18 election with 58.64 percent of the vote.

His closest challenger, U.S.-born former Foreign Minister and opposition Zharangiutyun party chairman Raffi Hovannisian garnered 36.74 percent, followed by former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian (2.15 percent), and Soviet-era dissident Paryur Hairikian (1.3 percent).
The Democracy Report
The remaining three candidates each polled less than 1 percent.

At a public meeting in Yerevan on February 19, Hovannisian rejected the official figures, declaring that he is the legitimately elected president. He publicly challenged Sarkisian to meet with him to discuss the situation, and set a deadline of late afternoon on February 20 for Sarkisian to demonstrate the "strength and manliness" to admit the outcome was rigged and to cede power "to the Armenian people."

Sarkisian has agreed to meet with Hovannisian "at any time that is convenient for him" in order to clarify Hovannisian's "somewhat incomprehensible" statements, according to Sarkisian's press secretary, Armen Arzumanian.

Ever since the two men seen as Sarkisian's most serious potential rivals -- former President Levon Ter-Petrossian and Prosperous Armenia party leader Gagik Tsarukian -- announced in December that they would not participate in the ballot, many Armenian observers have predicted that Sarkisian would win reelection easily in the first round and warned of the potential for fraud and ballot-stuffing that have marred virtually every election over the past 20 years and destroyed many voters' faith in the possibility of a democratic ballot.

Opinion polls and forecasts by organizations and individual pundits corroborated those predictions of an easy Sarkisian victory. A poll by Gallup International predicted 68 percent support for Sarkisian, compared with 24 percent for Hovannisian, while the Russian pollster VTsIOM predicted 61 percent for the incumbent and 24 percent for Hovannisian.

Precipitous Decline

By contrast, the European Friends of Armenia (EuFoA) registered a precipitous decline in support for Sarkisian in the wake of the January 31 incident in which Hairikian was shot and wounded outside his home.

A poll conducted by the EuFoA in early February registered a 10 percent decline since January, from 68.6 percent to 58 percent, in the number of voters who said they would vote for Sarkisian and a similar increase, from 20.8 to 33 percent, in the number who planned to vote for Hovannisian.

It should be borne in mind also that Sarkisian had to take into account the official outcome of the 2008 ballot in which, according to the Central Election Commission, he polled 52.86 percent of the vote compared with 21.5 percent for Ter-Petrossian.

Insofar as Ter-Petrossian was regarded as a far more serious challenger than Hovannisian in the current election, a vote of just 53-54 percent for Sarkisian this time around would imply a decline in his popularity, if one assumes that most of the estimated 80,000-90,000 voters who have emigrated over the past five years in the hope of a better life in exile were among those who voted for Ter-Petrossian in 2008.

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Liz Fuller is an analyst with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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