The reports from Armenia are both heartening and disappointing. How can it be both? Indications are that there is a palpable dissatisfaction on the part of the electorate that is rippling throughout the country. Only time will tell whether this can properly be referred to as a groundswell of voter dissatisfaction with respect to the reelection of President Sarkisian. However, there is no question that a growing number of young activists have serious concerns with respect to his reelection. These activists represent an ever-growing number of young people whose future and that of Armenia is their iron in the fire. Then we have the energized political parties that see an opportunity to take on a president they perceive as being a wounded tiger.
To begin with, Mr. Sarkisian has been reelected. Although neither candidate can honestly claim to have received a mandate from the people, this has not prevented Mr. Hovannisian from making that claim. Mr. Sarkisian continues to occupy the office of the President of the Republic of Armenia and has been congratulated on his victory by substantive foreign leaders who evidently prefer a known to an unknown chief executive. President Sarkisian still controls a majority in parliament and is supported by a cadre of apparatchiks and oligarchs who have their interests to protect.
It has been over a month since President Sarkisian was returned to office (Feb. 18, 2013 election). Since then Mr. Hovannisian has visited various parts of Armenia with the message that he won the election. Given the voting irregularities that were noted, his supporters have some basis to believe that he is the legitimate president of Armenia. Yet, how long Mr. Hovannisian can continue this tour de force? At what point might his claim fail to resonate with the electorate? It seems his self-esteem is unlimited, but the interests of the voters in this continuing saga may not be as unlimited. They still have their daily problems to cope with. The election has not changed that.
The problem for the opposition is maintaining this voter dissatisfaction or, should it wane, reenergizing it. Mr. Hovannisian went on yet another hunger strike in Freedom Square. Accompanying this decision, evidently made without thinking how it should or would end, was the following statement: “I will not eat and I will not accept deception and threats from anyone. If on April 9, Sarkisian takes his oath on the Holy Bible, and the Catholicos desecrates the Bible and blesses…[President Sarkisian] who mocks the people, then it will happen over my dead body.” He not only challenges the president, but the Catholicos as well. On one hand he claims to be the legitimate president of Armenia and on the other hand he is apparently willing to die to protect his claim. When Mr. Sarkisian is sworn in and is blessed by the Catholicos, what then? While these theatrics are being played out, the opposition is without a leader and a plan. If Mr. Hovannisian wasn’t so busy, it should be him. He is the recognized face of the opposition. He has proven his right to that position. Holding rallies seems to be his forte. If pure altruism were the guiding principle that motivated political parties, there would be no problem. However, there are pragmatic considerations as well that influence the agendas of these parties. Creating an effective opposition is not an easy task, as can be seen at this early stage. Maintaining it is more difficult.
The problem that the opposition faces is that there are two sets of reforms that must be addressed. One set covers the bread and butter issues that directly impact the day-to-day life of the people and their future. These are issues that determine the socioeconomic wellbeing of the country and the quality of life of its people. One has to determine whether this public outcry is caused by voting irregularities per se or against voting irregularities because the president and his failed policies and programs have been given another five-year term.
The other set of reforms relate to the systemic changes that must be achieved through constitutional revisions. These affect the type of government, the system of justice, and the election process. These are long-term unless a rapid change in the power structure takes place through a coup d’état or a revolution. Either process is beyond the capability or the intent of the opposition. The conundrum facing the opposition is that the bread and butter issues are dependent in large measure upon the long-term systemic changes required. It is a “catch 22” situation. At which end of the rope does the opposition begin to pull?
The May 5 election of representatives to the city council, which is the governing body for Yerevan, represents the first assault against the administration. Wresting control from the Republican Party would be a significant victory. In the first election (2009) for the 65 seats on what at that time was the newly formed council, about 53 percent of Yerevan’s eligible voters participated. The election gave the Republican Party 47.7 percent of the vote (35 seats) and the right to name the mayor. The Prosperous Party had 27.7 percent (17 seats) and the Armenian National Congress 17.4 percent (13 seats). No other party reached the 7 percent threshold to name a representative. At the time there were charges of voting irregularities. For the present election on May 5, 2013, failure to gain control of the council would deal a serious blow to the reform movement.
Unfortunately, what seemed to be a likely coalition has already fractured. Each party has decided to name its own slate of representatives. Good luck to that decision. A coalition could pool its votes and would only need to reach the 9 percent threshold (7 percent for individual political parties) to name representatives to the council. This would have been the better course of action given the results of the first election. If cooperation is elusive here, the administration has won a victory before the first vote has been cast. What does this portend for the future when a united front may be an absolute necessity?
Many of the desired systemic reforms will take time. This requires long-term commitments by the political parties to carry on an effective opposition. However, this required commitment is not a reasonable expectation in Armenia’s volatile political environment. The obvious danger, assuming an effective coalition can be formed, is the prospect of the administration peeling away an opposition party or its ability to counter coalition efforts with legislation that can easily pass in the Republican-dominated parliament. Such legislation, if beneficial to the electorate, would undermine coalition efforts as well as its support among the public, in general, or with specific groups, such as the young political activists. However, if the coalition’s efforts force the administration to be more responsive to the needs of the people, than that can be viewed as a victory, but it falls far short of the systemic changes the opposition seeks.
Potential coalition partners have their own unique agendas. While there will be times where the coalition may feel compelled to support the administration en bloc, there could be issues where a divided response occurs. Unfortunately the opposition must operate in a political environment that can change dramatically because of unforeseen events, manipulations by the administration, or interparty disagreements.
There is no easy path to the reforms, whether short-term or long-term, that must be had. The opposition must hammer away at the administration’s inadequacies, while proposing doable changes to improve the system of governance and the welfare of the people. The electorate—urban and rural, young and old—must be educated to understand the importance of their support and the patience to achieve the desired objectives. This is the time that will try the resolve of the coalition partners as well as the electorate. Realistically, political reforms may be less important to the people than legislation that has a beneficial impact on their quality of life. How to balance their support for the former against their greater interest in the latter is a problem that has to be resolved.
No political party wants to lose an election. However, the voter must have faith that a political party not only talks their interests, but is willing to wage the good fight, to win or be bloodied, on their behalf. Raffi Hovannisian was not only willing to talk their interests, but also accepted the challenge to face President Sarkisian knowing full well the obstacles. He proved that he was willing to fight for their cause. Can the Armenian people ask more from a leader?
The dissatisfaction of the Armenian electorate has been simmering for a very long time. Mr. Hovannisian has been the catalyst that has brought this resentment to a boil. Whether or not it succeeds depends on many variables. One can never say with certainty what the end result might be.
If Mr. Hovannisian’s “people’s victory,” which the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) has publicly accepted, should fail to gain traction, then the ARF has a duty to fulfill the mission, alone if necessary. Our party has to decide what it must do, and what it must do is to be perceived as ready and able to mount the political ramparts for the people.
In an interview months ago, I was emotionally taken by a thought expressed by unger Vahan Hovannisian: “Those who do not understand where my self-confidence, determination, and strength comes from should remember one word: Dashnaksutyun.” The principles and philosophy that define the ARF have endured for over 120 years. It is these eternal values that are the foundation for a system of governance where freedom, justice, equality, and opportunity exists for all Armenians irrespective of age, ability, or needs. This is the moment when our party must be imbued with that same self-confidence, determination, and strength to carry our flag into battle for our people and for our mayreni yergir.