Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Armenia: Administration Candidate Claims Outright Presidential Victory, Opposition Supporters Won’t Admit Defeat
By Marianna Grigoryan: 02/20/08

While retiring President Robert Kocharian was extending his congratulations to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian on his presidential election victory, while at the same time hailing the vote as "free and fair, thousands of Armenians attended a protest rally in central Yerevan, decrying the results as fraudulent.

According to official figures released by the Central Electoral Commission, Sarkisian, the pro-administration candidate, won 51.7 percent of the vote, enough of a margin to win the presidency outright without a run-off. Levon Ter Petrosian, who served from 1991-98 as Armenia’s first president, was a distant second-place finisher with 21 percent, followed by Artur Baghdasarian, head of Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law Party) with 16.4 percent. The leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Vahan Hovhannisian, finished fourth in the race with 6 percent. Five other candidates split the remainder of the ballots.

"I offer my hearty congratulations to you on your convincing victory," the outgoing president, Kocharian, said in a congratulatory message to his long-time political ally, Sarkisian. "The vote that you received in free and fair elections is the vote for continuity of reforms aimed at rapid development and democratization of the Republic of Armenia."

Meanwhile, representatives of Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) touted the elections as the fairest in the country since the Soviet collapse in 1991. "We can say that these are the best elections in our history," ruling RPA spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov told EurasiaNet. An international observer mission, comprising OSCE representatives and officials from other European multilateral organizations, roughly concurred that the February 19 presidential election marked a step forward in Armenia’s democratization process. But at the same time, observers noted several serious flaws that may have altered the results. [For additional information see the related EurasiaNet story].

Administration critics, especially Ter-Petrosian supporters, weren’t admitting defeat. Instead, they were insisting that the Kocharian-Sarkisian team had stolen the election. "The regime that rigged numerous elections once again is insulting the people’s dignity," said Stepan Demirchian during the February 20 opposition rally in central Yerevan. "Authorities’ methods of rigging elections have not changed. Electoral bribes, ballot-box stuffing, different kinds of fraud and violence, violence even against women."

Demirchian, head of the People’s Party of Armenia, lost to Kocharian in the 2003 presidential race. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Many administration critics believe Demirchian would have won that 2003 election, if not for massive electoral irregularities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The mood at the February 20 rally could be described as confrontational. Organizers claimed as many as 200,000 people attended. Other estimates placed the crowd in the 20,000 range. "Seeing this rally, authorities must hold a runoff. However, we don’t need that, we need that this election is recognized as null and void," one Ter-Petrosian supporter, Nikol Pashinian, stated. "We will go till the end. … Serzh [Sarkisian] will see the back of his head, but will not see the presidency."

While clearly scornful of the results, Ter-Petrosian himself exhibited no fury when he spoke. He proclaimed himself to be the winner of the vote, while alleging that Sarkisian gained victory only during the ballot-counting process.

"Nothing extraordinary happened. Normal, disgraceful elections took place for yet another time. For yet another time brutal, violent force was imposed on the will of our people," Ter Petrosian stated calmly, distinctly pronouncing words one after another. Ironically, Ter-Petrosian himself faced accusations of vote-rigging to ensure his own 1996 re-election.

"Despite all efforts made by the authorities and the criminal underworld -- electoral bribes, violence during the voting, ballot box stuffing, despite all that, at 8 pm [on February 19, the hour that polls closed], the people’s candidate already won. Everything happened after 8 pm," Ter-Petrosian added.

Unlike previous opposition rallies, which were mainly attended by elderly people dissatisfied with socio-economic conditions, the February 20 demonstration attracted a broad cross-section of society -- young people and residents from the provinces were a strong presence, along with a plentiful number of middle-aged and elderly Armenians.

"People have united, and it will be difficult to break this force," one of those present, a middle-aged woman, said. She said she had come in the face of a threat of losing a job for attending the "popular rally".

One woman standing at the bus stop negatively moved her hand: "What will happen, will happen to this people."

And 26-year-old Narek Hakobian -- who put up his fist and shouted "Le-von, Pre-si-dent!" and "Struggle, Struggle till the End!" -- expressed the belief that the opposition protest could force incumbent authorities to make political concessions.

Ter-Petrosian urged his supporters to shun violence. "Be calm, we have a clear plan of actions," Ter-Petrosian said. "And I am sure that we will no doubt establish rule of law in this country."

From the governing party’s point of view, the election is history, and opposition complaints are nothing more than sour grapes. "The people have already made their choice," said Sharmazanov, the RPA spokesman. "The RPA is an advocate of justice, and if a candidate has evidence of violations, he can turn to [the judicial system]."

Sarkisian, the president-elect, said he is not worried about the possibility of post-election disturbances. "I am sure that nothing serious will happen," he said. "Over the past 15 years, our law-enforcement bodies have been strengthened and [now] can fulfill any task."

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