The sixth presidential elections to take place in Armenia since the country’s independence in 1991 took place on 18 February, with seven candidates including president of Armenia Serge Sarkissian taking part in the race. When the results were declared, Sarkissian, representing the ruling Republican Party, was re-elected with 58.64 per cent of the vote, while Raffi Hovhannissian, leader of the Heritage Party and the country’s first foreign minister after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, came second with 36.75 per cent.
Some 2.5 million Armenians were eligible to vote in the elections, according to the country’s Central Electoral Commission. More than 60 per cent of those on the electoral rolls took part.
The result was predictable, commentators say, and even before the elections it was clear that the main struggle would be between Sarkissian and Hovhannissian. However, while international observers said that the conduct of the elections was an improvement over the 2008 elections, Hovhannissian has refused to recognise the results, describing the elections as “fraudulent” and refusing to leave Freedom Square in the capital Yerevan.
Hovhannissian has told his supporters that he was elected president of Armenia, and his campaign headquarters made allegations of bribery, forging votes, multiple voting and other practices in several regions even before the elections started, claiming that it had proof of these abuses.
When the results were announced, Hovhannissian held a press conference declaring his victory on behalf of the Armenian people. “The Republic of Armenia and its citizens have decided to take their destiny, our destiny, into their hands by voting for a presidency that recognises the rule of law, pursues the sovereignty of the Armenian Republic, and understands the national interest,” he said.
“On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and of the great national dispossession for which we demand justice from Turkey and from the international community, we seek justice for the Mountainous Karabakh Republic and recognition of its independence and territorial integrity.”
“These things will happen, as they did in Kosovo or South Sudan or East Timor. At the same time, we demand the rule of law for our citizens. For the first time in 20 years, the citizens have said yes to the constitution, yes to the rule of law, and yes to democracy. It is not about Raffi and Serge, not about the Heritage and Republican Parties, it’s about the future of the Republic of Armenia,” Hovhannissian said.
Thousands of Hovhannissian’s supporters gathered in Freedom Square to back his demands, challenging the re-elected president to come to the Square in person. The following day, and after Sarkissian failed to show up in the Square, Hovhannissian led thousands of his supporters on a march to the presidential palace, asking to meet the president.
When Hovhannissian left the building after the meeting, his supporters were still in front of the palace chanting “Hayasdan-Hayasdan,” or “Armenia-Armenia”. Addressing the crowd, Hovhannissian declared that “we are the masters of our constitution, our rights and our presidency,” adding that he would reveal the details of his meeting with the re-elected president the following day.
The next day, thousands of Hovhannissian’s supporters again gathered in a rally in Freedom Square, waiting for the man they call the new president of the country to reveal the results of his meeting with the re-elected president. One of the compromises offered to Sarkissian was to repeat the second round of the elections, it was reported, something that Sarkissian refused.
According to Hovhannissian, the other proposal had been to call snap parliamentary elections, which, he said, would return power to the people. However, Sarkissian refused this offer too. “This struggle will not die down. We will achieve victory,” Hovhannissian said to the tens of thousands in the crowds, adding that he would continue his campaign of peaceful demonstrations.
During last weekend, Hovhannissian went to the regions he won in the elections, Vanatsor and Gyumri, in which he received 70 per cent of the vote according to the official results. Despite the snowy weather, a huge crowd awaited him, and while the police tried to scare people away and closed the roads by force, tens of thousands of people nevertheless attended Hovhannissian’s rallies.
After the visit, Hovhannissian and his supporters headed back to Freedom Square to continue the rallies, defying the police who described them as “unauthorised.” “We are the masters of our constitution, our rights, and our presidency,” Hovhannissian declared.
The other candidates in the elections were Hrant Pakradian, leader of the Freedom Party and a former prime minister of the country, and Andreas Ghugassian, the director of Radio Hay and a political analyst who went on a one-day hunger strike when the presidential elections campaign kicked off, demanding that Sarkissian be removed from the ballot.
There was also Baruyr Hayrigian, a former dissident and the leader of the Union for National Determination Party, Vartan Setragian, a poet, and Arman Melikian, a candidate in the 2008 elections. Two candidates withdrew from the race in December, while Hayrigian was shot and injured at the end of last month and asked the courts to postpone the elections as a result.
Hayrigian called on the two leading opposition candidates, Havhannissian and Pakradian, to unite around a single candidate, but he failed to persuade them and a week before the elections he withdrew his request for a postponement.
The president of Armenia is elected for a five-year term by people living in Armenia. The country has a multi-party system in which no party is usually able to govern alone, and as a result the parties form coalition governments. In the 2008 presidential elections, there were nine candidates, with Sarkissian winning with 52.8 per cent of the vote and beating Armenia’s first independent president, Levon Der-Bedrossian, who got only 21.5 per cent of the vote.
Der-Bedrossian, who served from 1991 to 1998, was forced to step down in February 1998, halfway through his second term, after advocating a compromise settlement of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh which many Armenians regarded as undermining their security.
There were several on-line polls before last week’s elections that showed Hovhannissian’s possible win, while exit polls showed Sarkissian as the winner. While Hovhannissian has refused to recognise the election results, Moscow has approved them. Sergei Lebedev, the former director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, said that some minor irregularities had been noted that could nevertheless not have affected the overall results of the elections. Russian president Vladimir Putin congratulated Sarkissian on his re-election.
Three leading non-government parties, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the Armenian National Congress (HAK) and Prosperous Armenia, had announced their decisions not to take part in the 2013 elections, which meant that the campaigns were quieter than usual and lacked real debate. However, ARF leader Armen Rusdamian appeared in Freedom Square on Friday, joining the rally against the re-elected president and announcing that his Party supported Hovhannissian’s demands.
Nigol Pashinian, a prominent figure from the opposition HAK, also joined the rally and gave a powerful speech. “Starting from today, Serge Sarkissian will not have quiet nights,” he said, urging the other opposition parties to join the post-election protests. Leader of the HAK Der-Bedrossian recognised Hovhannissian’s victory and said “I have no doubt that Raffi is the winning president and that Serge was not re-elected.”
59-year-old Sarkissian is a war veteran from the country’s 1988-1994 war with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the region where he was born. A keen chess player and head of the Armenian Chess Federation, he has sought to maintain positive relations with the EU, NATO, Russia and Iran. Sarkissian was appointed Armenia’s defense minister in 1993, head of the country’s State Security Department in 1995, and finally minister of national security in 1996.
Hovhannissian, 53, born in Fresno, California, and moving to Armenia in 1990, was the first foreign minister of the newly independent Republic of Armenia, though he chose to resign because of differences with the then president Der-Bedrossian. In 2002, Hovhannissian founded the Heritage Party, and in 2011 he went on a “fast for freedom” hunger strike in Freedom Square in order to force government changes.
Hovhannissian visited Egypt in March 1992 when he was foreign minister.
Today, a week after Armenia’s sixth presidential elections, the Central Election Commission will officially announce the final election results at the moment that Hovhannissian has started a new campaign called “BAREVolution”, an Armenian-English word meaning “greetings to the revolution”.
The campaign has spread to the country’s universities and students of Yerevan State University went on strike earlier this week. In the wake of the controversy over the presidential elections, observers are asking whether the Arab Spring will now shift to this former Soviet country.
Armenia is a country squeezed between hostile neighbours, and there are many historical reasons for the conflicts it has been experiencing.