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.
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.