Incumbent candidate Serzh Sarksian won Armenia’s February 18 presidential election with 59 percent of the popular vote, confirming his second five-year term as president.
Despite cautious approval from international institutions regarding the quality and transparency of the election, there has been extensive disapproval and protesting in Armenia. Second-place candidate Raffi Hovhannisian and thousands of protesters rallied in Yerevan opposing Sarksian.
Protests and criticisms continue, but are unlikely to reverse the results of the election due to international institutions’ and the Armenian Constitutional Court’s upholding of Sarksian’s victory.
On February 18 incumbent candidate Serzh Sarksian was elected by a popular vote to his second five-year term as president of Armenia. At first, the election appeared to have been marked by apathy and disillusionment, but since the announcement of Sarksian’s victory, large protests led by second-place candidate Raffi Hovhannisian have taken place at Liberty Square in central Yerevan.
The official election results indicate that Sarksian received about 59 percent of the vote and Hovhannisian received about 37 percent. Although there are various records and reports of election fraud, including ballot-stuffing and attempts to vote more than once, international observers indicated that the fraud was not of a magnitude that would have changed the results of the election.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s observer mission reported on February 19 that the election was “generally well-administered and was characterized by a respect for fundamental freedoms, including those of assembly and expression”. The same report, however, pointed out that the distinction between the state and Sarksian’s party seemed blurred and that perceptions of an uneven playing ground were widespread throughout the pre-election campaign. Sarksian’s party was expected and predicted to win well before the election, even when faced with the possibility of a united opposition. Pre-election polls showed the incumbent President would likely win about 60 percent of the vote.
However, the campaign and election periods were hardly uneventful. On January 31, Paruyr Hayrikian, a onetime Soviet dissident and a marginal candidate, was shot in the shoulder in what is thought to have been an assassination attempt. In early March, another presidential candidate, Vardan Sedrakian (who received about .4 percent of the vote), was detained in connection with the shooting. He will be held in custody while the investigation proceeds but denies the allegations. Several other candidates, even relatively popular candidates, boycotted the election claiming it would be unfairly skewed in Sarksian’s favor. More cynical observers, however, questioned whether the boycott was a means to avoid the certainty of total defeat to the ruling party.
Since the election, opposition parties and leaders have become increasingly vocal about their dislike for Sarksian’s de facto single party rule. Hovhannisian planned a rally beginning in late February to protest unfairness in the election and has even accused the Central election committee of making a “false calculation” when counting votes. Thousands attended these rallies, continuing for several weeks, agreeing that the election was rigged and some claiming that Hovhannisian was the real winner. In March, Hovhannisian announced a hunger strike in protest of the results. Sarksian agreed to meet with Hovhannisian, but Hovhannisian refused to meet the President anywhere except for Liberty Square where the protests were being held. While Hovhannisian recently ended his hunger strike, he has vowed to continue the political struggle against Sarksian and has announced a wave of nationwide protests. These demonstrations have been met with varying levels of receptiveness, but substantial protests are expected on Sarksian’s April 9 inauguration day.
The 2013 election results suggest a continuation of the status quo. Relations between Iran and Armenia, Russia and Armenia, and the West and Armenia will likely remain largely unchanged under Sarksian’s continued presidency. For Armenia, this will mean maintaining some cautiously pro-Western policies while ultimately remaining within Moscow’s sphere of influence, largely due to its heavy reliance on Russian energy and remittances. However, there is potential for developing relations between Armenia and Turkey as the two nations continue attempts to normalize their interactions. However, Azerbaijan, Turkey’s close ally and arch-nemesis to Armenia, has been dogged in its opposition to normalization between Yerevan and Ankara.
Armenia’s unemployment rate in 2012 was 16 percent and 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line — making the economy a major issue in this election along with continued tension with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite these complications, this election cycle is at least something of an improvement from the 2008 election, after which ten people were killed in violent clashes. When casting his own ballot, Sarksian said, “I voted for the future of Armenia, for the security of Armenia, for the security of our citizens”.
The 2013 Armenian election cycle was far from perfect and in many ways warrants extensive criticism, particularly the manner by which the ruling party was able to manipulate the mechanisms of government to preserve power. Nonetheless, it was a welcome departure from the violence that plagued the 2008 elections. Despite opposition protests, the Armenian Constitutional Court upheld the results of the election in mid-March and Sarksian’s inauguration is scheduled for April 9.