Armenia’s strange presidential election should have come to close on February 18 with incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan winning reelection as most observers expected. Official results certified by the Central Election Commission showed Sargsyan with nearly 59% of the vote, more than the fifty percent necessary to avoid a runoff. Sargsyan’s closest challenge came from former foreign minister Raffi Hovannisian, who garnered just shy of 37%. No other candidate received more than 2%. Rather than accept the results, Hovannisian has taken to the streets, rallying his supporters and making wildly irresponsible claims and demands for Sargsyan to concede defeat.
The 2008 presidential election in Armenia was beset by charges of vote buying, ballot stuffing, and harassment and intimidation of poll workers. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) judged that the election, “mostly met OSCE commitments and international standards,” but did document problems with the vote count in some 15% of precincts. Sargsyan won election by 53-22% over his main challenger, former president Levon Ter-Petrossian. Ter-Petrossian refused to accept the results and called for mass protests in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. The government crackdown came after ten days of rallies and resulted in the deaths of ten protestors, the arrests of dozens of opposition activists, and a 20-day state of emergency during which the government moved to severely limit the opposition’s ability to organize.
Hovannisian, who was denied a spot on the ballot in 2008 because he had not lived in Armenia for ten consecutive years prior to the election, has chosen to follow Ter-Petrossian’s lead in questioning the legitimacy of unfavorable results. However, he has gone one step further than his predecessor, openly declaring himself the rightful winner. At a rally in Yerevan on the day after the vote, Hovannisian demanded that Sargsyan step down.
“I am already the elected president of the Republic of Armenia,” Hovannisian said. “I want to come here tomorrow at 5 p.m. and report to you that I met with Mr. Sargsyan and that he had the strength, [the] manliness … to say that the Armenian people won and congratulate them.”
Sargsyan has said through his spokesman that he will meet with Hovannisian, but only so that the defeated candidate can clarify his “somewhat incomprehensible” claims. OSCE has concluded that the 2013 election was, “generally well-administered and characterized by a respect for fundamental freedoms,” but noted that the lack of credible candidates made the election “not genuinely competitive.” This was due to the decisions of the main opposition parties not to field challenges to Sargsyan.
While the government’s response to the 2008 protests was an extreme overreaction and showed a disturbing lack of respect for the right of self expression and dissent, it is also incumbent on the opposition to respect the process and accept the results in the absence of overwhelming evidence of fraud. Hovannisian’s calls for more protests throughout the country smacks of an attempt to take by popular revolt what he was unable to secure at the ballot box. Ultimately, such actions are not beneficial to Armenian democracy or to the opposition itself.
There are reports that the main opposition parties are considering issuing a joint statement on the election results. This would be a positive step and represent a far more responsible course than Hovannisian has taken thus far. The opposition should refrain from incitement and grievance airing in its statement, focusing instead on finding areas of agreement amongst the parties and offering constructive ideas for making elections in Armenia more open and transparent.
It is not clear that Hovannisian represents a best choice to lead the opposition to Sargsyan’s government, given his campaign promise to recognize the occupied Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent nation. However, there are a relatively few if any Armenian politicians who have distinguished themselves on that issue of late. Still, if a vibrant, democratic culture that respects the people’s basic rights and freedoms and provides them with a viable choice in future presidential elections is to be realized in Armenia, the opposition parties must come together around a common agenda. Abandoning wild claims and mass demonstrations and laying out a positive agenda for the future would be a good start.