Election Armenian Presidental Election Unexpected change in the political landscape

The impression is that the Armenian politicians are balancing the expectations of the Armenian public and the International Community. Both government and opposition have to show that they are responsible politicians that will not resort to violence and that are ready to accept defeat and continue constructive dialogue with their political opponents.

Published on balticworlds.com on April 21, 2013

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The Armenian presidential election the 18th of February was by most analysts expected to be a rather boring re-election of the incumbent president Serzh Sargsyan. Most of the best well known politicians of the opposition did not bother to run against Sargsyan and there were no uniting figure challenging the government. Furthermore Armenia had cooperated closely with the international election observers and had made promises to deliver a fair election and restore its rather tarnished democratic reputation. To some extent the analysts were right in their predictions. Sargsyan was indeed re-elected and congratulated by world leaders and European organizations. However, the post-election process nonetheless developed into an unexpected and rather confusing change in the Armenian political landscape.

In the evening of April 9th 2013 police and anti-government protesters clashed in Yerevan in the climax of the post-election contestation. Raffi Hovanissian, the runner-up in the Armenian presidential elections on, had earlier in the day challenged the inauguration ceremony of Sargsyans second term as president and counter-inaugurated a “New Armenia”. Later in the day he led the crowd to the presidential palace, which, he claimed, belonged to the people and not the unlawful regime that had stolen the election. This time they were stopped by police and there were a handful of arrests and a few bloody noses. Some had hoped the protests would be the start of a revolt against corruption and oligarchy, but instead of letting the confrontation ending in violence, like in post-election contests before, the situation was diffused. The more radical protesters stayed, while Hovanissian walked off and performed a public prayer together with the chief of police at the eternal fire commemorating the victims of the Armenian genocide.

This common act of prayer between the chief of police and the leader of the protests was a clear act of reconciliation that marked the symbolic end of the post-election drama. The street protests ended and politics went back to some kind of normality and preparation for the upcoming local elections in Yerevan.

The post-election events show that Armenian society is not as politically apathetic as believed and can channel dissatisfaction through the established parties. It also shows that the Armenian government, with all its flaws, can rely on both inside and outside support and is able to handle protests without the use of violence. What remains to be seen is if this reinforcement of the forces of stability and re-birth of the forces of change can be transformed into a constructive political climate in a country that desperately needs both stability and change. The overwhelming problems of Armenia are unresolved international conflicts with the powerful neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkey, a shrinking population, poor economic growth, perceptions of entrenched corruption and deep cleavages in society between the super rich and the extremely poor. The promise of the opposition has always been to overthrow the so-called oligarchs in power. The problem is how to do get people to believe in this, especially as most leading politicians have been around since independence and are themselves partly responsible for creating the situation.

In the talks before the parliamentary election 2012 there were many rumors going around that the presidential election could be a battle between three presidents. The third president Sargsyan could expect to be challenged by the first president Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who claimed he was the real winner in the last election in 2008, and by taking part in the parliamentary elections returned to formal politics after years of boycott. He could also be challenged from inside the second president Robert Kocharyan, who could make a come-back in the style of Vladimir Putin taking back the throne from his chosen successor. These rumors never came true. Instead most of the senior politicians and major political parties stated their intention not to run.

A common theme among political commentators was that the unwillingness to run and the feeling that the result was already fixed reflected the state of political apathy and fatalism that was said to characterize Armenian politics. For Ter-Petrosyan the result of the parliamentary election had been rather disappointing. His election coalition, the Armenian National Congress (ANC) did not emerge as the major force of opposition and he himself declined from running for president once more. Instead, Hrant Bagratyan, former prime minister of Armenia in the 90ies and head of his own party, ran as candidate from the ANC coalition. Another cause for speculation was what the major winning party in the parliamentary election, the Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP), would do. The party was founded and led by Gagik Tsarukyan a former world champion arm wrestler and one of the richest men in Armenia. PAP had positioned itself in opposition, but in the end decided not to compete in the presidential election. The only party leader with his own faction in parliament who entered the race was Raffi Hovanissian, leader of the smallest group in parliament, Heritage. Sargsyan was also challenged by a group of less well established candidates all of which campaigned on an agenda of general protest against the regime: Andrias Ghukasyan, radio host, political analyst and one of the prominent people in the new student protest movement in Armenia, Paruir Hayrikyan, a dissident from Soviet times, Arman Melikyan, former minister for foreign affairs in Nagorno-Karabakh and presidential candidate in the 2008 election, and Vardan Sedrakyan, an expert in epic poetry.

The election campaign was however not without drama. Andrias Ghukasyan started by going on a hunger strike declaring that the elections were fake and demanded that Sargsyan should admit this by withdrawing from the race. Even more dramatic was when Paruir Hayrikyan was shot and severely wounded. Because of this he had the right to postpone the election and first said he would, but in the end refrained from doing so. In a bizarre twist Vardan Sedrakyan was after elections arrested for organizing the assassination attempt. There were appeals for the opposition to unite behind one candidate, but no such unity emerged. Instead Hovanissian, whose party Heritage had only gained 6% of the vote in the parliamentary elections, became the candidate that channeled the protests against the state of affairs in Armenia. In the polls before election Sargsyan got between 60-70% support and Hovanissian emerged as the key opposition candidate with 10-30% support.

Raffi Hovanissian is a member of the first generation of Armenian politicians who came to power after the fall of the Soviet Union. Hovanissian may be described as a traditional populist. He is more nationalistic than the official Armenian line and is considered to be charismatic and having an ability to communicate a message of hope to ordinary people. He was the first foreign minister of independent Armenia and is mainly connected to the issues that led to the rise of Armenian nationalism back then: the recognition of the Armenian genocide and the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. He is a member of the Armenian Diaspora and was born in the USA. His grandparents were survivors of the genocide and his father is a historian specializing in Armenian studies. He is educated in law and diplomacy in the USA and had a career as a lawyer before he moved to Armenia in the late 1980ies in connection to the catastrophic earth quakes. After Armenian independence he served as the foreign minister in Ter-Petrosyans government, but had to go after attempting to address the issue of the Armenian genocide with Turkey without anchoring it with his government. Hovanissian is often described as a politician who behaves very unpredictable and unexpectedly joins and departs coalitions. He has also sometimes been in conflict with his own party. His party Heritage has positioned itself outside both the ruling coalitions and the opposition alliances and lobbied for recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state. In later years Hovanissian has also been active in extra parliamentary politics by going on hunger strikes and taking part in protest rallies.

The actual elections were fairly undramatic. Sargsyan won a comfortable 58,6% of the vote according to the official tabulation and Hovanissian came second with 36,7 %. The rest of the candidates got less than 4% together. Election the observers of the OSCE declared as “well-administered” and “characterized by a respect for fundamental freedoms” and world leaders were quick to endorse the winner. The international community had before the elections signaled that it was important that Armenia showed progress in how the elections were carried out and the parliamentary election of 2012 had raised the hopes of a normalization of Armenian politics.

Hovanissian, however, claimed that the whole election was falsified and that he in fact was the real winner. By opposing the election result Hovanissian emerged as a somewhat unexpected new leader of the Armenian opposition almost by default. The question was what to do with this role. One way was to remain clean and boycott the official politics and build an alternative political structure in parallel to the official. Hovanissian was in his rallies speaking about starting a New Armenia. This would mean embarking on a revolutionary path that is clearly dangerous and it was questionable if the political capital gained in the presidential election would be enough to create something that might challenge the government. A regime change outside the official election procedure, or “color revolution” scheme, would to be successful normally need both support from inside and outside and rely upon unquestionable proof that the election result was falsified and hence illegal. It was not the first time such tactics was tried in Armenia.

In 2008 Levon Ter-Petrosyan challenged Sargsyan and claimed victory in the election. The tactic then was, like in the colored revolutions of Ukraine or Georgia, to hold mass rallies and confront the government in the hope that it would fold and enter negotiations leading to regime change. That time it ended in violence and tragedy. The post-election contestation led to confrontation between police and protesters resulted in ten dead and hundreds injured. This event poisoned the political climate in Armenia for years to come, and damaged the image of Armenia’s democratic transition to the outside world.

Hovanissian indeed seemed to embark on the color revolution road. The post-election contestation was dubbed the barevolution, and abbreviation of “barev” (meaning “Hello!”) and “revolution”. Hovanissian had campaigned in an American style and greeted people with the word “barev”, which was supposed to signal a new style of politics. The protest had its own logo and could be followed globally live through Twitter hashtags. But the barevolution also had some new features. A difference from other color revolution events was that the barevolution did not rely upon presenting numbers. The numbers were challenged on a more fundamental way. The barevolution rhetorically resisted the accounting practices, were political power is associated with numbers, either in elections or in street manifestations. Counting was contrasted with the rights and dignity of the individual as a member of a collective that already owned power according to the constitution. While the opposition in 2008 attempted to by showing that the numbers were on their side the opposition of 2013 attempted to show they represented the Armenian civic spirit that had been re-born or re-juvenated during the protests. In an interview with Radio Liberty Hovanissian admitted they were not as good at mobilizing people, but stated that it did not matter. He instead claimed there was a shift in mentality:
“People say: ‘Don’t count me! I’m not a flock of sheep. I’m not 30 000, I’m not even 540 000. I’m an individual and I belong to a collective called the republic of Armenia. I’m a citizen.’”
He contrasted himself with Sargsyan, who wanted to count and control a small flock of sheep in a contained geographical area, whereas he wanted to represent all Armenians all over the world, including the Diaspora and Nagorno-Karabakh. It was thus not only a protest against the ruling elite but also a protest against the international “audit society” where accreditation, monitoring of standards and the practices of counting and proper procedures are more important than a collectively felt sense of injustice and violation of inherent rights. As an example the OSCE observers’ press conference was stormed by activists who protested against the sanctioning of what they saw as corrupt elections.

The argument was that people would not have voted for Sargsyan if the election had been conducted in a more fair way, without the presence of vote buying, use of administrative resources and state TV. Hovanissian claimed people had voted for Sargsyan not because they wanted him to govern the country, but because they felt they had to due to fear. This is what was meant by fake elections. The barevolution had supposedly created a shift in consciousness so that the people after the election were not the same as before. In the post-election developments he took a step back from the role of a presidential candidate and instead has attempted to take on the role of leader of a national revival resisting an unlawful regime that has captured the state. The barevolution according to Hovanissian had changed the spirit in society and the government should acknowledge this. He demanded that Sargsyan step down regardless if he could show numbers of support and accreditations both from international organizations and traditional authorities like the church. The other parties of the opposition also joined forces and declared the elections as fraudulent. And a struggle emerged within the opposition to capitalize on the mobilization of mass protests.

Like many times before in Armenia the election result was challenged by an opposition that accused the government of fraud and would not admit defeat, but unlike previously the protests were confusingly non-confrontational. Hovanissians proposal to Sargsyan was to meet him in a second round of elections, or to hold new parliamentary elections, or to create some kind of power sharing. Hovanissian first spoke in a tough language and threatened with occupation of the central square of Yerevan, went on hunger strike and said he would rather die than accept the result. However his threats was always withdrawn and there were an ongoing dialogue between him and Sargsyan. Sargsyan on his part did not act with violence and repression, but with dialogue and offers of a compromise within the confines of the constitution and law. Offers that Hovanissian rejected. The end of protests was marked by the showdown at the presidential palace and the reconciliatory prayer with the chief of police.

Rather than challenging each other head on to determine a winner both sides refrained from violence, backed down from confrontational threats and maintained a sort of dialogue that allowed each side to build their own parallel versions of events. For the government it was important to restore state authority with a legitimate vote. For the opposition it was important to show that there was a real alternative that could channel a general and deep distrust in politics into a mandate for change and feelings of national revival. But it was also important for both to find a formula that allowed for working constructively with concrete political issues and making compromises. The post-election development seems to have renewed some hope in radical change and reveals a revolutionary mind-set which makes compromises hard. But perhaps more important in the long run is the non-confrontational protests that shows that all sides strive to be viewed as responsible politicians. The leaders of opposition and government apparently did not want to repeat the events of 2008.

The protests were dramatic enough to show that there was a possibility to mobilize opposition against the government, but the response also showed that the only way for change was through the official channels. On the one hand this was a disappointment for all those who had started to hope for a revolutionary development in Armenia. After the events on the 9th there was a disillusion among the student movements that had supported the contestation. Hovanissian took an unexpected trip to Moscow and the protests lost most of its momentum. On Twitter human rights and democracy activists voiced their disappointment over a lost chance of a colored revolution. On the other hand the protests were declared to have entered a second phase and the barevolution would continue within the framework of representative politics and the preparations for the municipal elections. The barevolution was transformed into a traditional election platform called “Barev Yerevan!” for the upcoming local elections in the city of Yerevan. So the outcome of the whole post-election drama was a de-escalation of political tension between the government and opposition and a focus on the next contest.

The impression is that the Armenian politicians are balancing the expectations of the Armenian public and the International Community. In this balancing act both government and opposition have distinct roles to play. The government should act as the garanteur of stability and upholder of the constitution and formal law and order. The opposition should act as the agents of change in the morally bankrupt political society of Armenia. Stability means to ground Armenia in the world and consolidate a functioning state in Armenia in order to protect the current distribution of wealth and power and keep the peace and status quo regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. Change on the other hand means reigniting Armenian nationalism in order to challenge both the distribution of wealth in society and the foreign policy objectives. To the International Community both government and opposition have to show that they are responsible politicians that will not resort to violence and that are ready to accept defeat and continue constructive dialogue with their political opponents.

So far both Sargsyan and Hovanissian have played their roles well. Hovanissian’s actions points towards a lesson learned from previous violence and confrontation. It was necessary to present a theater of revolt to show continuity with the role of opposition as opposed to oligarchy, but it was also necessary to show civic responsibility in order to continue the political struggle with credibility. The remaining challenge is to transform the momentum for change into politics within the framework of the existing Armenian state. If the barevolution momentum can be transformed into a political alternative, the 2013 presidential election might be remembered as a step in the evolution of the political culture of Armenia in a direction towards dialogue and reconciliation.


  • by Anders Nordström

    Anders Nordström has a Ph.D. in political science and is post doctoral researcher at CBEES since 2010. His main specialization is European politics, transnational regulation and international organizations monitoring of states with a focus on the Council of Europe and the Eastern Enlargement of this organization.

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