For the fourth time in 17 years, a defeated Armenian presidential candidate has openly denounced the outcome of the ballot as rigged and declared himself the legitimately elected president.
The candidate in question is U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian. According to official returns, he polled 36.8 percent of the vote, compared with 58.6 percent for incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian.
Meeting with Sarkisian on February 21, Hovanissian suggested three alternative courses of action, all of which Sarkisian rejected: that Sarkisian acknowledge him as the rightful election winner; that Sarkisian call a repeat presidential ballot; or that Sarkisian schedule early parliamentary elections in which all of the 131 mandates would be allocated under the proportional system.
Hovannisian’s Zharangutiun party won just five seats in the May 2012 elections, down from seven in 2007.
On February 28, Hovannisian plans to convene a large-scale "national rally" in Yerevan to launch a "prolonged struggle" to "return power to the people." He dubbed that process a "barevolution," a wordplay on the colloquial Armenian greeting "barev" (good day). The hallmark of Hovannisian’s election campaign was approaching potential voters in the street to talk to them.
In some respects, the current situation recalls that of five years ago, when former President Levon Ter-Petrossian denounced as falsified the official results that gave him just 21.51 percent of the vote compared with 52.82 for Sarkisian. Ter-Petrossian and his supporters set up a tent camp on Yerevan’s Freedom Square. Tens of thousands of people attended daily rallies in his support.
Ter-Petrossian, too, appealed to the Constitutional Court -- without success -- to annul the vote. The standoff ended on March 1, 2008, when police and security personnel first launched a dawn raid to expel protesters from Freedom Square, then that evening confronted protesters elsewhere in the city. Ten people died in the resulting violence.
Serzh Sarkisian speaks at a rally in the Kotayk region in January.
Hovannisian, by contrast, has convened just three postelection meetings in Yerevan, on February 20, 22, and 24. On all three occasions, attendance was in the thousands rather than tens of thousands. A larger number of people turned out on February 23 in smaller provincial towns and in Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city, where Hovannisian polled nearly 70 percent
of the vote, compared with 23 percent for Sarkisian. But no one showed up in the small town of Goris, where Hovannisian was scheduled to speak on February 27.
Of Armenia’s opposition parties, only the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun has thrown its support
behind Hovannisian. Ter-Petrossian has said he is convinced the vote was rigged
and that Hovannisian won but has not committed his Armenian National Congress (HAK) to join the protests.
The Prosperous Armenia Party, whose faction is the second-largest in the parliament elected in May 2012, released a statement noting public dissatisfaction with the country’s leadership, calling for restraint, and advocating the consolidation of "all influential political forces" to draft and implement a "road map" leading to sweeping democratic and economic reforms. None of those three parties either fielded its own presidential candidate or endorsed a candidate from another party. There have been no reports of government officials resigning to side with Hovannisian, the way some did in sympathy with Ter-Petrossian in 2008.
The modest attendance at Hovannisian’s Yerevan rallies led political commentator Tatul Hakobian to observe
that Hovannisian is finding it difficult to mobilize the optimum level of support. Public Council Chairman Vazgen Manukian, Ter-Petrossian's closest rival in the 1996 presidential election, predicted
that "there will be meetings, but they will peter out.... People will become disillusioned with Hovannisian."
Ter-Petrosssian, for his part, told a HAK meeting last week that Hovannisian lacks a clear plan of action that would force the Sarkisian administration to cave in. "I see words, I see speeches, but there is no action, no plan of action," the former president said
Hovannisian has hinted
that he will appeal to the Constitutional Court to annul the election results and schedule a repeat ballot. But as the daily "Hayots ashkhar" pointed out on February 26, it is not clear what evidence of election fraud Hovannisian could present to the Constitutional Court, given that he demanded ballot recounts in only a handful of polling stations. According to Central Election Commission Chairman Tigran Mukuchian, Sarkisian would still have had enough votes to secure reelection outright even if the commission had accepted Hovannisian’s demand to invalidate the official vote results in 118 of the 2,000 precincts.
In his interviews over the past week, Hovannisian has consistently stressed that the percentage of the vote he garnered and the support shown for his efforts to have the vote annulled reflect the maturity of Armenian civil society and the intensity of people’s desire for democratic change. At the same time, he has affirmed that he will do all in his power to prevent a repeat of the bloodshed of 2008.
"I can only say that at the cost of my life, I will not permit even one drop of blood to be shed," the daily "Aysor"
quoted him as saying.
Meanwhile, Sarkisian is in a strong position given the generally positive assessment of the vote by international monitors and the fact that both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
and European Union President Jose Manuel Barroso
have offered formal congratulations on his reelection.
There is, however, one factor that could impel Sarkisian to seek some kind of accommodation with Hovannisian and that is the danger that Azerbaijan might launch a major offensive to win back the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region in order to avert the (admittedly remote) possibility of Hovannisian coming to power in an orange "barevolution" and making good on his campaign promise to recognize the territory as an independent state.
It is not clear whether the hint by parliament Chairman Hovik Abrahamian
that Sarkisian is open to "reasonable proposals" from Hovannisian and could even offer him a government post was made with that worst-case scenario in mind.
Whatever Sarkisian’s motives, it is unlikely Hovannisian would be tempted by such an offer.