Sorting Through Armenia's Contested Election

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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.

By the same token, the official figure of 36.74 percent for Hovannisian calls into question the accuracy of the 21.5 percent Ter-Petrossian is said to have garnered in 2008, and which he never accepted as an accurate or legitimate figure.

Ter-Petrossian has not yet publicly commented on the results of this week's election. 

Nonetheless, parliament deputy Lyudmila Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh), a member of Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress, said she cannot believe that Hovannisian polled more votes than Ter-Petrossian did five years ago.

According to the official returns, Hovannisian won more votes than Sarkisian in three districts in Yerevan, Armenia's second- and third-largest cities of Gyumri and Vanadzor, as well as several major towns. 

Western-Style Campaign

There is likewise little way of determining whether and how many voters cast their ballots for Hovannisian not because they wholeheartedly endorsed his election program (which calls, among other things, for the recognition by Armenia of Azerbaijan's breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region as an independent state), but because they wanted, first and foremost, to register their rejection of Sarkisian, and regarded Hovannisian as the most palatable and credible alternative.

Hovannisian incurred Sarkisian's ire by depicting the election campaign as almost a Manichaean struggle between good and evil as exemplified by "Raffi's Armenia" and "Serzh's Armenia." 

Similarly difficult to quantify is the impact of Hovannisian's Western-style campaign. Eschewing the mass rallies preferred by Sarkisian, the engaging and articulate Hovannisian instead toured various districts of Yerevan on foot, randomly greeting people in the street, shops, and other public settings, shaking hands and handing out his campaign booklets.

Laszlo Kemeny of the International Center for Electoral Systems interpreted the election results as a vote of no confidence and a wake-up call to Sarkisian. 

Kemeny was quoted as telling journalists that "this was not a struggle between two leaders; there is one leader here, but that state of affairs is not eternal, and unless there are cardinal changes in the socioeconomic life of the country, new figures do not appear in the leadership and a redistribution of political forces does not take place, then the authorities will get a 'red card' on top of this 'yellow card.'"

Hovannisian did not say on February 19 what steps he planned to take if Sarkisian ignored his ultimatum.

In an interview in late January, however, he made it clear that he would seek to avoid at all costs a repeat of the violent postelection confrontations in 2008 between angry Ter-Petrossian supporters and police and security personnel in which 10 people died.

While stressing that he would not tolerate fraud, Hovannisian declared at the same time that "I don't want a bloody revolution...I am not prepared to risk the life of any Armenian." He said he would, however, "do everything that the constitution and laws allow me."



This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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Liz Fuller is an analyst with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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