BACKGROUND: Few surprises were expected in the Armenian presidential election on February 18, 2013. Incumbent President Sargsyan was projected to win without serious competition. Yet, expectations existed that this presidential election would be the first in Armenia in a decade without major accusations of fraud, and that the opposition would hence accept the incumbent’s victory as legitimate. The opposition has refused to accept the official results in virtually all of Armenia’s previous presidential elections. This pattern repeated itself in 1996, 1998, 2003 and 2008. Moreover, after the latest presidential election in 2008, opposition protests lead to a government crackdown and the tragedy of March 1, which left 10 people dead and dozens wounded. Disputed elections and post-election protests have contributed to a lack of government legitimacy, which has in turn resulted in the government’s inability to carry out reforms necessary for Armenia’s development, further contributing to the government’s alienation from Armenian society.
This year the government camp hoped to break this vicious cycle and resolve the legitimacy issue. These hopes were based on the fact that the most influential political forces, including Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s Armenian National Congress, Gagik Tsarukyan’s Prosperous Armenia Party, as well as Dashnaktsutyun, one of Armenia’s oldest parties, had decided not to take part in the elections. Hovannisian, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs who was born in the U.S. and moved to Armenia in the early 1990s, remained the only credible opposition leader in the race, but was expected to gain no more than 10-15 percent of the votes.
However, even according to official results, Hovannisian received just below 37 percent, quite a substantial figure considering post-Soviet realities. Sargsyan was declared the winner with 58 percent, but Hovannisian refused to accept the official results and accused the government of large-scale election fraud. In the days following the elections, Hovannisian’s supporters held rallies in Yerevan and in the regions. The meeting between Hovannisian and Sargsyan on February 21 did not produce any substantial results and Hovannisian held a hunger strike for 20 days to protest the official results.
Today rallies, albeit drawing smaller crowds than the initial one, continue on a weekly basis. Hovannisian continues to declare himself the president-elect, though he has also stated his readiness to negotiate with Sargsyan. Hovannisian’s supporters are planning to hold an alternative inauguration for Hovannisian on April 9, the day when Sargsyan is expected to be sworn in as president. Calls to participate in a “march of a million” on April 9 to show support for Hovannisian have been circulating on the Internet. Hovannisian’s movement has already been dubbed “barevolution”, a combination of the Armenian word “barev,” meaning hello, and the English word “revolution” – a reference to Hovannisian’s pre-election campaigning when went door to door and greeted strangers in the street.
IMPLICATIONS: While the accuracy of Hovannisian’s claims is difficult to assess, they present a serious challenge for the authorities since a large portion of Armenian society tends to mistrust the official results given the country’s history of disputed elections. Opposition supporters claim that the authorities used inflated voter lists, and that these non-existent votes were crucial to Sargsyan’s victory. They argue that the government’s refusal to make public the voting protocols with voters’ signatures means that the government is trying to hide something. They also stress that Hovannisian won with an overwhelming majority in urban areas, while rural areas were taken by Sargsyan, arguing that voting in urban areas is more difficult to falsify, given the large numbers of voters and presence of journalists and observers, both international and local, while rural precincts are more vulnerable to voter intimidation and ballot stuffing.
While these arguments may appear convincing to those familiar with the electoral technologies often used by incumbents in post-Soviet countries, Hovannisian’s camp still lacks hard evidence to prove his victory, and was further weakened by the Constitutional Court’s decision to reject the appeals by Hovannisian and another candidate, Andrias Ghukasyan. Yet, Armenia’s Constitutional Court has a history of siding with the incumbent government, implying that neither the protesters themselves, nor the wider public are likely to accept the court’s decision.
Importantly for the government camp, its version of events seems to have been largely accepted by the international community, albeit with certain reservations. While international observes criticized certain aspects of the elections, particularly the extensive use of administrative resources by Sargsyan’s campaign, they did not go so far as to question the official election results, and even praised the campaign in some respects, e.g. for a relatively balanced media coverage. Sargsyan’s position was boosted by the congratulations he received from all Armenia’s neighbors except Azerbaijan, as well as from important global and regional players including Russia, the U.S. and the EU.
In this context, Hovannisian’s camp faces serious difficulties in sustaining the momentum of the protests. Other opposition parties, which did not take part in the elections, have so far failed to voice unequivocal support for Hovannisian, while they have also distanced themselves from the government’s position. Hovannisian’s camp hopes to rally support through participation in the Yerevan City Council election, scheduled for May 5. Yerevan is home to more than one third of Armenia’s population; therefore taking control of the capital could be instrumental in changing the power balance. However, the attempt to create a united electoral block failed: major opposition parties will run on separate lists.
The government camp, however, is also in a difficult situation. If facing a political crisis, Sargsyan will have to rely on the party’s old guard, the corrupt bureaucracy, as well as the so called “oligarchs,” wealthy businessmen with government connections who control large chunks of Armenia’s economy. This will dramatically curb the government’s ability to fight corruption and monopolization of Armenia’s economy, to attract foreign investment and implement other reforms that Armenia badly needs. The government camp is also weakened by contradictions between various groups within the ruling elite: while Sargsyan’s Republican Party seems monolithic on the outside, it is internally fractured between various factions, clans and interest groups.
The lack of domestic legitimacy can also influence the government’s ability to respond to external challenges. A questionable position at home will impede Sargsyan’s room for maneuver regarding such sensitive issues as Armenia-Turkey relations and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution. Consecutive Armenian governments have been reluctant to appear weak and compromising on these issues and it is highly improbable that Sargsyan will take such a risk if confronted with a protest movement at home.
The domestic situation will also complicate Sargsyan’s relations with the West as well as Russia. Sargsyan’s government has played a complicated game in recent years, seeking to balance its strategic security partnership with Russia with closer ties to the EU, particularly within the framework of the Eastern Partnership program. Armenia signed a visa facilitation agreement with the EU in December 2012, and is expected to sign an Association agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement in the near future. Simultaneously, Armenia faces pressure from Russia to join the so called Eurasian project, particularly the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which will exclude the possibility of similar arrangements with the EU. Armenia is moving closer to a stage where it will have to make an choice between the two alternatives, which will be extremely difficult for a government that enjoys limited legitimacy and is vulnerable to external pressures.
CONCLUSIONS: Even though Sargsyan was declared the winner, the elections on February 18 failed to resolve the issue of government legitimacy. Moreover, allegations of fraud, Hovannisian’s hunger-strike and mass rallies in his support have further contributed to the erosion legitimacy. While it is at this point difficult to predict how the standoff between government and opposition will end, it is obvious that the government was weakened by the recent elections and faces serious issues at home, which may also influence its ability to deal with external challenges.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Mikayel Zolyan is a Yerevan-based political scientist. He works in the NGO Yerevan Press Club and teaches at several Yerevan Universities.