In the run-up to each of those ballots, opposition candidates and parties expressed confidence that in a fair vote they could defeat the entrenched ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). But whether as a result of caution on the part of voters who feared any change would prove worse than the status quo, the perceived ideological bankruptcy of all political parties, or of systematic election fraud, or a combination of all three, that did not happen.
Instead, HHK chairman and incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian was reelected for a second five-year term and the HHK retained its absolute majorities in parliament and on the Yerevan municipal council. Those three successive HHK wins have reinforced the widely held belief that the ruling party can engage with impunity and without incurring international condemnation in ballot-stuffing and vote-buying to retain its virtual monopoly on power.
Editorializing on the outcome of the Yerevan vote, the opposition daily "Zhamanak" wrote: "One thing is clear: Serzh Sarkisian is able for now to successfully rig elections and achieve more and more important results, and the political field is putting up less and less resistance to this." Veteran human rights activist Vartan Harutiunian for his part commented more succinctly that "in this election game, politics was defeated by money."
Yet notwithstanding the perception that "achieving regime change by means of elections is impossible in Armenia," the political landscape is very different now from early 2012 and is likely to continue to change. One major political party has strengthened its position, while support for two opposition parliamentary parties has dwindled.
The biggest change has been the exit from the governing coalition of the Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia) party headed by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian. BH placed second in the May 2012 parliamentary elections, increasing its representation in the 131-member legislature from 26 to 36. In this month's Yerevan municipal election, it received the same number of mandates (17) as in 2009*.
Tsarukian formally announced a year ago that his party would not enter the new coalition government. Since then, senior party officials have repeatedly stressed that BH is not in opposition but rather sees itself as "a constructive alternative" to the HHK. Tsarukian’s decision that neither he nor any other BH candidate would participate in the February 2013 presidential ballot only compounded speculation about BH's long-term aims. So, too, did Tsarukian's belated first appearance in parliament since being reelected in May 2012, in the company of veteran HHK parliamentarian Galust Sahakian.
Tsarukian attempted earlier this month to set the record straight, explaining that BH "cannot be an opposition party" because there are already three or four such parties. That statement was a clear rebuff to the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) headed by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who has consistently referred to BH as an opposition force with which the HAK hoped to cooperate. It may also have been intended as a warning to individual members of BH, including former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who believe the party should openly declare itself in opposition to the HHK. At the same time, Tsarukian stressed that BH "fully stands for what is good for the country and the people."
Some commentators have attributed the seeming ambiguity of BH's position to the collective reluctance of Tsarukian and other wealthy entrepreneurs to jeopardize their financial interests by openly challenging the HHK. But according to analyst Yervand Bozoyan, BH "is trying to create a sort of buffer zone between two political poles and occupy its unique niche within that [buffer zone]."
Bozoyan implied that with time, BH could prove increasingly attractive to the 90 percent of Armenia's businessmen he estimates are dissatisfied with Armenia's current economic policy and hope for the creation of a free market but dare not openly say so for fear of reprisals.
In an editorial published two weeks ago, two prominent International Monetary Fund officials urged the Armenian government to abandon its "gradualist" policy in favor of decisive, swift, and comprehensive change. Failure to act on that advice could accelerate the defection of frustrated entrepreneurs to BH.
The past two years have also seen the eclipse of Ter-Petrossian's HAK, which in the spring of 2011 had briefly appeared on the verge of tapping into popular discontent to launch an Arab Spring-style revolution. But for whatever reason, Ter-Petrossian declined to launch a definitive attempt to topple the government.
Talks between the HAK and government representatives that got under way in August 2011 petered out after a few weeks. Ter-Petrossian's efforts to form a bloc with BH to contest the May 2012 parliamentary elections came to nothing, but the HAK nonetheless secured parliamentary representation for the first time, winning seven mandates.
Then Ter-Petrossian, like Tsarukian, declined to run in the February 2013 presidential ballot. And the HAK has now lost the seats on the Yerevan municipal council it won in 2009*, possibly having forfeited voters' trust by refusing for years to participate in the work of the council to protest what it termed major violations during the 2007 ballot.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) has similarly forfeited popular support. The party won only five seats in parliament in last year’s elections, down from 16 in 2007 when it was still a member of the coalition government. The HHD quit the coalition two years later to protest Sarkisian’s drive for rapprochement with Turkey.
In a statement released two days after the May 2012 vote, the HHD's governing council questioned the legitimacy of the outcome and attributed its lackluster performance to "widespread violations," including vote-buying on an "unprecedented" scale. It was that perception that the ruling party has fine-tuned its increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for predetermining the outcome of any given election to the point that falsification is impossible to prove that deterred the HHD from fielding a candidate in the February presidential ballot after it failed to persuade other opposition forces to select and support a single opposition candidate. (HHD candidate Vahan Hovhannisian placed fourth in the 2008 presidential ballot with 6.18 percent of the vote.)
The HHD was equally unsuccessful in its bid to drum up support for sweeping political change, including Armenia’s transformation from a presidential to a parliamentary republic. It nonetheless intends to continue its efforts to promote consolidation within the opposition camp.
Like the HHD, the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party headed by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian fared worse in the May 2012 parliamentary ballot than it had four years earlier, winning just five mandates compared with seven in 2007. But after the HAK, BH, and the HHD decided not to participate in the February presidential ballot, Hovannisian as Zharangutiun’s candidate became by default the most serious of the seven opposition challengers to incumbent President Sarkisian.
Hovannisian placed second with 36.7 percent of the vote but refused to accept the outcome as valid and went on hunger strike in an unsuccessful bid to induce Sarkisian to have the vote annulled. Some observers consider him discredited in light of his inconsistency and his outright rejection of Sarkisian's offer to discuss ways of increasing the opposition's role in decision-making. Some voters appear to share that perception. The percentage of the vote Hovannisian's Barev Yerevan bloc polled in the May Yerevan mayoral election (8.5 percent, which translates into six of the 55 seats on the council) was far lower than the 36.7 percent he won in the presidential ballot.
Armenia's next scheduled national election is not due until 2017. It is thus not just premature but futile even to begin speculating about what possible new alignments may emerge between now and then; whether Ter-Petrossian, now 68, will still be HAK head; or whether some BH members may break away to form a separate, unequivocally opposition party.
In addition, the parliamentary elections in May 2017 will inevitably be seen as the first round of the presidential ballot the following year, in which Sarkisian is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term. Whom he will groom as his successor is not yet clear.
Meanwhile, two political trends bear monitoring closely. The first is the ongoing impact on the political scene of the generation of political and civic activists born after Armenia regained its independence in 1991, a generation whose thinking is not constrained by the Soviet mind-set and which takes for granted, and uses to the full, social media and networking.
The second is what could be termed the "Raffi effect." Even though he may have badly misplayed his hand in the aftermath of the presidential ballot, Hovannisian's simple, friendly, and direct style of campaigning galvanized the political atmosphere. The opposition daily "Aravot" quotes prominent oppositionist Hovannes Igitian as pointing out that "not only in Yerevan, but also in small towns and villages, Raffi managed by virtue of his kind and nonaggressive statements to break the people’s taboo on not criticizing the government." That new approach, Igitian predicted, has created a situation in which "it will be easier for the opposition to work with the people."
*CORRECTED: An earlier version of this story stated incorrect dates for the last Yerevan municipal elections. In fact, they were held in 2009 (and then in May 2013).