Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Armenia's Presidential Vote Remains a Cliffhanger
By Marianna Grigoryan: 02/19/08

After months of accusations and counter-accusations between the campaigns of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian and former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, voters went to the polls February 19 to decide who will become Armenia’s next president. In a region where election outcomes have often been clear well in advance, Armenia’s presidential vote is shaping up as a cliffhanger, with preliminary official results not expected to be released until February 20.

The Central Election Commission has reported that 69.25 percent of Armenia's roughly 2.3 million registered voters turned out to cast ballots for the nine candidates running in the February 19 presidential elections. The figure comes within range of 1991, when more than 70 percent of voters turned out for Armenia's first presidential election, according to the Commission.

Vote counting was scheduled to begin at 9 pm. Official preliminary results must be announced within 24 hours of the polls' closure at 8 pm on February 19.

Yerevan was dead quiet on the night of February 19, with few residents seen on the slush-filled streets, and many stores closed. The day had been declared a holiday.

Ironically, all three of the election's leading actors -- outgoing President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian and former President Levon Ter-Petrosian -- voted at the same Yerevan polling station. Its number, 9/11, was a cause for ongoing jest among local reporters.

Kocharian led off the appearances at 10 am, telling reporters that he would make his future plans known "on April 9," the A1+ website reported.

"I think no one doubts who I have cast my vote for. I have voted for Armenia's stability and prosperity," Armenian Public Radio reported Kocharian as saying.

Two hours later, Prime Minister Sarkisian, Kocharian's pick for president, pulled up to the polling station in a black Land Rover bearing a campaign flag. As his wife, Rita, stood to one side, clutching a bouquet of roses, Sarkisian told reporters that he did not expect any "critical" changes in the government, post-election -- a statement that served as a de facto assumption that he would win the vote.

Arriving at the same polling station just over an hour later, lead opposition candidate Ter-Petrosian came with twice the security detail -- bodyguards wearing earpieces -- and attracted twice the media crush. With his grandchildren standing nearby, the ex-president told reporters that he had "voted for freedom," and had voted for himself.

As he has throughout the campaign, Ter-Petrosian asserted that he was confident of securing victory in a first round of voting, yet charged that voting irregularities were already under way. "Based on my information, there are some very dirty things going on. I'm familiar with thousands of concrete facts," he said.

It was left to the Ter-Petrosian campaign itself to provide the details.

Campaign spokesperson Arman Musinian claimed that two Ter-Petrosian proxies had been beaten in the town of Abovian, where, he alleged, "an atmosphere of terror reigns."

In response to another reported beating incident at a Yerevan polling station, the Republican Party of Armenia countered that the Ter-Petrosian campaign supporters were beating their own observers "and then distributing this information on the websites of news agencies that cooperate with them" in order to "cast a shadow on the elections process."

Polling station 08/21 in the Yerevan neighborhood of Malatia-Sebastia also gained considerable attention. While Ter-Petrosian spokesperson Musinian displayed ballots from the station that he claimed provided proof of carousel voting, Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia circulated a report that Ter-Petrosian supporters themselves had beaten the head of the station's election commission.

The details could not be independently verified in time for publication.

Three hours before the polls closed, the General Prosecutor's Office had reportedly started five criminal cases concerning various election law violations related to activities of Ter-Petrosian campaign representatives in both Abovian and Malatia-Sebastia, the opposition-friendly ArmInfo news service reported.

Lead opposition candidate Artur Baghdasarian, head of the Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) Party, has added to the barrage of allegations about election violations, asking the Central Election Commission and law enforcement organs to take measures to stop alleged cases of voter beating, intimidation, bribery and ballot box-stuffing that the campaign claimed been observed nationwide.

The Republican Party has bluntly denied the accusations.

"Our supporters have nothing to do whatsoever with falsification and beatings," spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov told EurasiaNet. "We refute any such allegation since the RPA is the party that is the advocate of law and justice and places importance on free and fair elections, which we had today."

If the election "is not described as more democratic than [last May's] parliamentary elections," he continued, "they will not be worse, despite all the provocations that one of the sides tried to stage."

Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian also spoke about "free and fair" elections as he cast his ballot in Yerevan "in the name of peace, continuity, security and Armenia's development."

"I hope that we will have a legitimate president. A new page will be opened for us the day after the election. I hope that we will all congratulate the winner," Oskanian told journalists.

Six international and 39 local observation organizations are expected to start giving their assessments of the vote on February 20.

"It is still early to make statements and conclusions," Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly Deputy Chairman Anne-Marie Lizin told reporters. OSCE/ODIHR observers, the largest international observer mission, will hold a press conference on February 20 in Yerevan.

Whatever the assessment or the vote's outcome, Ter-Petrosian has called for a rally in downtown Yerevan to be held on the afternoon of February 20.

"We warn that the situation may spiral out of control as a result of [voter] intimidation and election violations, the whole responsibility for which lies on the Kocharian-Serzh authorities," the ex-president's campaign announced in a statement, referring to Prime Minister Sarkisian by his first name.

Despite considerable media speculation about potential post-election unrest, the prime minister downplayed the notion that "revolutionary" conditions existed in Armenia. "The post-election struggle is a struggle for implementation of our programs," he told reporters at the 9/11 polling station, in a clear assumption of his own victory. The emphasis, he added, should be on Armenians recognizing the vote as legitimate.

"What I consider to be important is not the number of rounds, but building confidence among an absolute majority of citizens as a result of the election," Sarkisian said.

Editor's Note: Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan.