Mensoian: Are We Going from Barev-olution to Mnak Barov-olution?

Let’s see if we can view the situation in Armenia objectively. There can be no question that the three administrations that have governed Armenia since its independence in 1991 have failed to keep faith with the Armenian people. At the same time, let us not absolve any political party from its responsibility for allowing these conditions to persist.

Barevolution rally in Yerevan earlier this year. (Photo by Khatchig Mouradian)
Barevolution rally in Yerevan earlier this year. (Photo by Khatchig Mouradian)

From day one every presidential election in Armenia has been challenged on the basis of voting irregularities. Yet the political parties, while constantly complaining of these gross irregularities, have failed to join forces to correct the alleged abuses. Was it not important? Vote tampering has become an established part of the election process. One questions why the election irregularities during the Feb. 18, 2013 presidential elections should have aroused additional concern. Was it so egregious? Or was it due to a transplanted Amerigahay showing the way? Hovannisian not only challenged a sitting president against very heavy odds, but in the process gained a moral victory (if not an alleged political victory). Like the “perfect storm,” his bravado connected with voter dissatisfaction with President Sarkisian’s ineffective economic policies and programs to give birth to the Barevolution. Even given this most opportune moment, well beyond what the marginal political parties could have anticipated, their political leaders still cannot rise above parochial interests to work cooperatively for the benefit of the Armenian people. Is it any wonder that Sarkisian derives some comfort when he views his opposition?

Of the approximately 1,518,000 votes cast, the incumbent Sarkisian (Republican Party) received approximately 58 percent, or 880,000 votes, and Hovannisian (Heritage Party) received approximately 38 percent, or 577,000 votes. The remaining candidates received a combined total of 61,000 votes. For Hovannisian to have won outright would have involved a transfer of some 152,000 votes from Sarkisian, leaving the latter with 728,000 votes to Hovannisian’s 729,000 votes. This would have given Hovannisian a razor thin margin of victory. Given the reports and anecdotal comments, it is within the realm of possibility that ballot stuffing, the destruction of ballots, disqualifying ballots, and miscounting could have changed the final outcome of the election—or at the very least, have made President Sarkisian’s margin of victory significantly less. A margin of victory of five percent or less would have been politically embarrassing to Sarkisian.

However, Hovannisian is not the president of Armenia. As the apparent leader of the Barevolution he has a responsibility to the Armenian people. That responsibility is to discontinue the event de jour that leaves the Armenian people waiting for his next move. To his credit, he has a very engaging personality. His grassroots campaigning was a far cry from the stiff, heavy-on-the-rhetoric, Armenian style of campaigning. This stark contrast made him an appealing and believable candidate. However, it is time for Hovannisian to assume the role of statesman. Even now that role may have slipped his grasp. Forming a meaningful coalition and leading it to undertake the necessary reforms is significantly more demanding than holding rallies, visiting various regions of Armenia, engaging in hunger strikes, or setting deadlines that whet the appetite of the disaffected, but provide no sustenance.

Hovannisian has lost the momentum his moral victory had provided. He moved from event to event with no palpable progress and a diminishing number of energetic supporters in hand. The people have legitimate demands that have been ignored by the three administrations that have governed (“ruled” may be a more appropriate term) Armenia since independence. Even at this extremely critical juncture, the marginalized political parties have not been able or willing to vigorously—the emphasis is on vigorously—support Hovannisian, possibly because he does not have a viable plan to address what the people seek to achieve.

It will soon become apparent to the voters that Hovannisian and the Heritage Party, if not fully supported by the other political parties, will have a difficult task effectively challenging Sarkisian and the Republican Party. Challenging an entrenched political organization supported by a cadre of aparacheks, oligarchs, and yes, some citizens, demands a dedicated coalition willing to put aside their philosophical differences to work toward a common goal. That common goal is the series of domestic reforms, both economic and political, that will affect the process of governance and the socio-economic wellbeing of the electorate.

Some commentators describe Hovannisian’s actions as civil disobedience. As yet that is an inappropriate characterization. However, it raises the question whether he and his followers are willing to engage in peaceful sit-ins, sit-downs, marches, and boycotts to advance the objectives of the Barevolution. This would be civil disobedience. However, this is taking the movement to a more confrontational level. How many followers would be lost in this transition?

The tactical mistake Hovannisian made occurred almost immediately following the election results. He confronted Sarkisian head-on by demanding that he resign. His call for parliamentary elections by the end of the year; the right to name specific cabinet ministers; the firing of a long list of public officials for alleged complicity in voting irregularities; and bringing other public officials up on charges of malfeasance and misfeasance was supported primarily by his bravado. Hovannisian left no wiggle-room for the president or for himself. While he vastly overestimated the pressure he could bring to bear on the president, Sarkisian correctly estimated the limited strength of his opponent.

The obvious next step is the Yerevan City Council election on May 5. Hovannisian should use what persuasiveness remains in his arsenal to convince the voters of Yerevan to cast their ballot for change. It is unfortunate that he does not head the list put forward by the Heritage Party.

As has been suggested by others, there are corrective changes that can be introduced to produce a cleaner, if not clean, election. Voter lists should be displayed. There should be a check-off at the time that the ballot is given to the voter and another check-off when the voter places the ballot in the ballot box. Political parties should be allowed equal representation properly identified by party affiliation in the polling venue. No one should be allowed to loiter within the polling venue or around its entrance. The practice of bringing military personnel en masse as well as groups of employees to cast ballots should be eliminated. The opposition should be unified in publicizing these reasonable changes.

It would place the onus on the administration if it refuses to cooperate. If these “cosmetic” changes cannot be had, then Hovannisian or the coalition (if that can ever be realized) must consider what the next step will be. Each move taken to counteract a tactical failure can be expected to escalate the level of confrontation.

Wresting control of the Yerevan City Council from the Republican Party will not be an easy task. Unfortunately the opposition parties have decided to present their own list of candidates in the election. Individual political parties are required to reach the mandated seven percent threshold in order to name representatives. If a coalition had presented a single list, the threshold would have been nine percent, which is more likely to be attained. Campaigning with a single message and pooling their vote-getting appeal would have been preferable. Conducting an election with competing platforms, some of which carry a litany of promised changes likely to turn off voters, negates any advantage that the opposition might have had to prevent the Republican Party from gaining a majority of the votes cast.

As a result the opposition has given the Republican Party a legitimate victory before any votes are cast. The thinking in some quarters is that once the voters have spoken, the political parties can cooperate to name a candidate for mayor. This assumes that the Republican Party does not gain a majority of the votes cast. Pre-election unity is the key to winning control of the Yerevan City Council not hoped for post-election consensus. If there cannot be unanimity on the part of the opposition for the council election, what is the prospect for forming an enduring coalition to challenge Sarkisian long term?

Other than the parties already represented on the council (Republican Party with 35 seats; Prosperous Party with 17 seats; and the Armenian National Congress (ANC) with 13 seats) the only parties likely to meet the mandated 7 percent threshold to name representatives is Hovannisian’s Heritage Party, which did not participate in the 2009 election, and the ARF. Both the Prosperous Party and the ANC, which combined received 40.2 percent of the vote in 2009, can be expected to wage campaigns to increase their representation. The Republican Party, which received 47.4 percent of the vote in 2009, will seek to retain its majority status to have Mayor Taron Margaryan renamed to the post.

Hovannisian carried 3 of Yerevan’s 12 districts (Ajapnyak, Arabker, and Avan) in the presidential election. These 3 districts are home to about 26 percent of the city’s population. This bodes well for the Heritage Party. It would be a serious blow if the Republican Party lost control of the council. With an estimated 1.2 million people, Yerevan is home to about 40 percent of the country’s population. As the capital of the country that Sarkisian governs, its loss would be a nagging embarrassment during his term of office.

Hovannisian has a difficult role. He is committed to reform without violence, but creating a confrontational environment without results is counterproductive. Presently he still seems to have the support of the people. However, how committed these energized citizens will be to his continued leadership if change is not forthcoming is questionable. The Yerevan City Council election will be a fairly reliable guide to the mood of the electorate.

There is a fine line separating Hovannisian’s peaceful rallies, marches, personal hunger strikes, and deadlines from becoming a sanguineous movement led by people who feel that once again they have been thwarted in achieving their legitimate demands for a better life. This pressure for change has been building for years. To his credit, he gave the disaffected a face and a voice, but that may have run its course. In every movement there is a tipping point brought about by unforeseen events or voter frustration that could transform his “steadily and constitutionally” based peaceful Barevolution into a volatile and emotionally charged movement. Then again it just might be that the Barev-olution simply fades to a Mnak Barov-olution. These possibilities should give Raffi Hovannisian and the opposition leaders something to contemplate.

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Michael Mensoian

Michael Mensoian, J.D./Ph.D, is professor emeritus in Middle East and political geography at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a retired major in the U.S. army. He writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.

11 Comments

  1. A THOUGHTFUL SUMMARY OF CURRENT EVENTS IN ARMENIA BY MICHRAL MENZOIAN. GENERALLT HE IS RIGHT ON TAEGET.JOHN MANUELIAN

  2. let’s face it Hovanessian is no statesman. Following the election he was more disappointed in his loss than worrying about the Armenian people and improving the government. He was the last chance for a meaningful change and we lost it. Now we have to wait a while before things change in Armenia. He had the mandate to influence the government of Serge Sarkissian and he threw it away. We have to wait for the next generation of the politicians and suffer through the current conditions another 15 years.

  3. Yes, sadly enough Hovanissian got carried away with too much self-regard and spoilt his unique chance to play a leading role in the opposition. By this, not only did he lose the fruits of his hard-won achievement in the election, but disappointed many of his admirers in and outside Armenia. Hopefully, he will learn a lesson form his post-election mismanagement for future.
    Besides this, the opposition forces in general suffer from a chronic weakness of egocentricity which prevents them to play a sensible role in the politics of Armenia. Untill such time the opposition forces and the political elite in Armenia haven’t learned to form coalitions, which is always formed through give and take, Armenia will not have a decent measure of democracy and rule of law.

  4. Though the above comments,plus what Major Mensoian writes are in conformity with the gradual deterioration that dear Raffi’s campaigning has undergone,due to a few factors though…
    Not just his being a bit off track now and then.thus>/
    it is not quite coalition that some mention but lack of cooperation amongst people like /Raffi.Not just him.Take e.g. Mr. Baruyr Hairikian*BTW how’s he coming up in Amsterdam or is he back in Yerevan..When latter was campiagning ,I watched clsoedly what he was delivering in his discourses…pretty much Raff9.That is trying to “going it alone”. He claimed that if only 2 yrs the presidency of RA woulkd be his, he would do this that…
    He never bothered to mention Raffi or Bagratian.Everyone one is simply INKNISHKHAN..Soverign….in a tiny country like RA. with two major Foes around and then trying to do it ALONE!!!
    Teamwork is necessary amongst people who aspire to MAKE CHANGE.
    Otherwise like Avery here has opined…sorry to say, the present unfair and sad situation will prevail to the detriment of above,giving green light to those at the helm to CARRY ON…
    The armneian as yet has to learn the art of cooperating,doing thigns in teamwork…period.

    • sorry Mr. Palandjian: I have not opined in this thread (until this post). You must be confusing me someone else.
      IF I had opined, I would not have opined that it is, quote, “unfair” and “sad” situation. Quite the contrary. The Republican Party and President Serj Sargsyan were indeed given a bright Green light to carry on: by the 58% of Armenia’s electorate. Democracy at work.
      I know people in RH’s camp cannot accept their massive defeat, but too bad: Armenia won. God bless Armenia.

  5. Addendum,
    Sorry for above hastily and badly written post.Please excuse me-mostly due to jet-lag too.I wish to add that long before the elections I wrote that pres.Serge Sargsyan could-if he would-arrange a HASHDVOGHAKAN-truce-like Gov.after being re-elected and bring in all the contending parties(meaning their Elite) and try to form a cabinet that would be just that.That is composed of the mentioned plus indeed fone ea from our traditional and a few non so political parties.Thus ,it would be more that a coaltion gov.that is usually formed in some countries. Ours cannot all of a sudden act like those.We need ,first of all to be more tolerant of ea other and form Convergence,rather than coalition.There are many ,as yet to be reformed tactics that can be employed in our system of Gov.also why not in the Diaspora as well.For latter also is rather centrifugal,fragmented and so far impossible to consider as a Hshdvoghakan -Truce Governance.Anyhow,I shall refrain from commenting for the time being and see what the outcome will be ,as I intend to write yet another of myu ¨paper¨s to be sent to many individuals establishments and Armenian media.

  6. Great article with great points. As I have stated before, free exchange of ideas, including criticism of the opposition, is key to the success of our nation.
    .
    A few quotes from the article stand out:
    “There is a fine line separating Hovannisian’s peaceful rallies … from becoming a sanguineous movement led by people who feel that once again they have been thwarted …” I agree completely. As I have stated before, all this talk about whether to have a revolution or not is irrelevant. Both the government and the opposition need to understand: if there is no satisfactory change, there will be revolution, and if it’s without control, it will be quite sanguineous.

    Another good point: “Each move taken to counteract a tactical failure can be expected to escalate the level of confrontation.” I have always been amused by the immature tactics of Armenia’s opposition leaders, when they make the demand “resign or else.” And then of course the government doesn’t resign, and it’s the end of the story. The opposition will be much more effective if it demands certain changes in the law or in the constitutional system, and then incrementally escalates its tactics when the government denies the changes. Plus, the government may be more willing to make legal and systematic reforms than changes in the individuals who are in power. The legal changes, if done right, will bring about power change at a later time anyway.
    .
    Finally, I fully agree with this quote: “Pre-election unity is the key to winning control of the Yerevan City Council not hoped for post-election consensus.” This article, perhaps unwittingly, demonstrates the problems with the proportional electoral system in Armenia. It results in breaking the opposition into little parties, which helps the Republican party, since it always has a fractured opposition. That’s where I disagree with Raffi, who demands that the entire parliament become proportional. Coalitions are inherently unstable, and the parties will most of the time act in their self interest. This is a human feature, not an Armenian feature. What Armenia needs is a majoritarian (or plurality) electoral system, such as in the U.S. This will force people to vote for the likeliest candidates in a given precinct, which will lead to a single opposition party. This will be the end of the monopoly by the Republican party. Of course, the voters may realize this after one ore two elections. And therefore Armenia will need another electoral change—elections every 2 years (such as in the U.S.). This way, the public will not have to wait for five years. Which will give the people enormous hope for change and help reduce emigration, as emigration is primarily due to loss of hope.
    .
    Of course, the opposition needs to unite for one time to change the system. The reason they have failed so far maybe because Raffi has not presented good ideas to unite around, or maybe the parties just don’t want to unite out of their natural self-interest. In the second case, activists do not need to wait for Raffi or the parties to unite, they can unite their supporters from among the people by presenting good ideas and strategies, and then follow the incremental escalation strategy suggested by the article.

  7. Mr. Palandjian,
    When I say the opposition has to learn to form and act in coalition, it means in fact readiness to copoperate with other parties and their leaders, putting aside self-interest, at least to some degree, etc. Raffi could in the first place have entered into give and take negotiations with the ARF, Ramgavars, HAK, all of whom showed some degree of sympathy towards him. Incidentally, I don’t find Baruyr Hairikaina whom you manetion a significant political partner. But, anyway Raffi was moved by self-esteem and made the campaign, which could have encompassed many other forces, his own personal one.
    Vahagn
    What you are suggesting is the so-called two-party system which is prevalent in Anglo-American countries. I don’t see it happen in Armenia, at least, in the near future given the Armenian character which is unfortunately to a great extent still egocentric especially in the political field. In many of the European democracies there are a number of political parties at work which try hard to attract voters by competing democratically. And when there is a possibility of acting in unison they grab the opportunity for the common benefit. This is why in these countries there is almost always a coalition government formed by parties who have fared well and served people better. Stability or unstability of coalitions again depends on the degree of the political culture and the sense of responsibility of the people in a given country.

    • Arshag, I usually have issues with the idea that Armenians are more egocentric than the average human, but let’s assume it’s true. If the Armenian parties are egocentric, how will they ever form sustainable coalitions in a proportional/multi-party system? Isn’t the majoritarian/two-party system more suitable for the egocentric parties?
      .
      Imagine there is such a system in Armenia. Say, in each district, each voter will vote for his preferred party. Because of the fragmented opposition, most likely a Republican will win. By the next election, however (which is why elections should be every 2 years), the voters will have learned their lesson, and regardless of their preference, they will vote for the likeliest opposition candidate. This will force the opposition parties to present the likeliest candidate in a given district. They will have to do it one of two ways. Either the parties will be forced to present one candidate, or each party will work extra hard to convince the voters why their candidate is the best. After one or two elections, the most viable opposition party will emerge, and the people in each district will vote for that one. Such a system forces the egocentric parties to unite prior the elections.
      .
      I agree that stability in a coalition system may depend on the political culture. When I think of coalitions, I think of Italy, where in 2013 each of the 4 parties won 25 percent of the seats in the parliament. The Italian papers wrote “the winner is ungovernability.”
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-21587150
      Maybe you think of a more stable country like Germany. But the problem is, if Armenia continues to be multi-party, what are the guarantees that it will be more like Germany than Italy? Italy has been democratic for over 60 years, and it still suffers from instability. Can Armenia afford to be unstable for 60 years? That is one of the reasons I support the majoritarian system.

  8. Vahagn
    The more we move towards the south in Europe the more fragile the democracies in these regions are. In fact, it doesn’t have to do much with the number of parties in a given countries. In England for example, there are other parties at work besides the Conservatives and Labour. But, for either system to work be it two-party or multy-party, the level of political education and the sense of civic responsibility of the public always plays an essential role. The political leaders have a crucial role in educating and inspiring their people. It seems though, our leaders have to learn it the hard way themselves.

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