By Edmond Y. Azadian
The February 18 presidential election produced a new and unexpected political landscape in Armenia. Based on parliamentary elections of last May, most of the pollsters were forecasting an uneventful presidential election, ranking the incumbent President Serge Sargisian as the uncontested front-runner.
In all, seven candidates were competing but the pollsters had been predicting only single-digit percentage of the votes to every other contender including Raffi Hovannisian, founder of the Heritage Party, which had barely met the 5-percent requirement at the parliamentary elections last May. Literally, they received 6 percent of the votes.
But at the conclusion of the presidential election, the pollsters were surprised to find out that Hovannisian, in fact, had garnered 37 percent of the votes. Perhaps that result even surprised the candidate himself.
This unforeseen outcome will have a far-reaching impact on the political developments in Armenia for a long time to come. To begin with, Raffi’s strong showing demotes Levon Ter-Petrosian’s HAK (Armenian National Congress) coalition as the major oppositional force. The coalition, lately, was striving to reform itself as a full-fledged political party, after many defections. Therefore, a tectonic shift occurred in the opposition camp.
It is yet too early for Hovannisian to be intoxicated with his election results, because most of the votes cast in his favor are actually votes against the present administration. People are desperate and they don’t anticipate any improvement in their plight. The rich are getting richer and they are demonstrating their obscene level of opulence in an arrogant manner, while the majority is sustaining a life below the poverty level, or abandoning the homeland and heading away, towards an uncertain future.
According to the tabulation of one independent pollster, Aharon Adibekian, the Heritage Party, which, in cooperation with Free Democrats, had garnered 5 percent of the votes of the electorate last May, this time around has received votes from the followers of all the parties, including the ruling Republican Party. Thus 6 percent of Republicans voted for him, 36 percent of Gagik Zaroukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party, 40 percent of Ter-Petrosian’s HAK, 38 percent of the ARF, 29 percent of the Land of Laws Party and 77 percent of the Heritage Party.
Raffi Hovannisian projects a very positive image. He is charismatic, honest and reliable. He can look imposing and authoritative, yet he is mild-mannered and respectful.
Raffi Hovannisian and Vartan Oskanian (through his Civilitas Foundation) have much in common, including the fact that they both served as foreign ministers and that they both were born outside of Armenia. Their most noted similarity is that both introduced a political culture alien to a country recently emancipated from Soviet authoritarian rule. Most of the votes cast in Hovannisian’s favor indicate that this political culture has made inroads in the thinking of the Armenian electorate. Also, it seems bias against diasporan representatives is eroding. Perhaps in his mind, Hovannisian has been trying to emulate Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a US-educated lawyer supported by the US and the West. Although Saakashvili was able to curb corruption and developed the economy at a fast pace, his current predicament is not that enviable; thus, hopefully, the similarity of the two statesmen does not go any further.
Hovannisian has come a long way from the days he made a legitimate claim at the wrong place and the wrong time, which cost him his position as the first foreign minister of Armenia. Indeed, during a visit to Turkey he raised the issue of the Armenian Genocide, without coordinating with the president, who was in the process of negotiating a grain deal with Ankara to forestall the specter of famine in Armenia.
The results of the voting have been rated as the best yet in Armenia since its independence 21 years ago. Kathryn Ashton from the European Union (EU) has given credit to the authorities in Armenia for their efforts to raise the level of electoral process towards European standards. The US State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, has endorsed the evaluation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors, marking a few dark areas that need to be addressed. The ARF and HAK representatives, however, evaluated the elections as “stolen” through bribes, irregularities, ballot-stuffing and so on.
Although President Sargisian has claimed victory with 58 percent of the vote, Raffi Hovannisian is claiming to be the true president-elect with 80 percent of the votes, without indicating just how he has arrived at that figure. His first reaction was rather Quixotic as he went to Freedom Square and gave an ultimatum to President Sargisian to show up at the rally the next day at 5 p.m. and to surrender to “the will of the people.” As expected, no one showed up at the given time, therefore, Hovannisian himself headed to the presidential palace for a one-and-a-half-hour meeting with Sargisian, where he made three requests: 1. Recognize the “people’s victory” (meaning that of Raffi Hovannisian). 2. Hold early parliamentary elections and 3. Punish those responsible for the fraudulent elections.
None of the above requests have been met, although the conversation has been courteous and non-confrontational. People truly appreciate Hovannisian’s civil demeanor in all these dealings.
He has returned to the Freedom Square rally and has vowed to continue the struggle through constitutional means until he achieves victory. His slogan is “salute to Armenia” and many people have already began to characterize his movement as the “Revolution of Salute.” This, of course, is reminiscent of the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia and the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine. Both movements were replete with youth trained through the Soros Foundation. They were alien injections in those respective societies and not homegrown movements.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind in Armenia that the Heritage Party is supported by the West and particularly by the US and there are no qualms about that perception. In his original platform Hovannisian had questioned the existence of the Russian military base in Armenia and asked for the revision of the treaty. That statement clearly indicated where he was coming from. During his speeches he has also outlined his foreign policy: He has said that the issue of Protocols is dated. By 2015 either Armenia establishes its diplomatic relations with Turkey without any preconditions or Yerevan presents its claims to Turkey. He has also said that one should not assume that the recognition of Nagorno Karabagh is out of the question, since Kosovo and East Timor have been recognized. This, of course, is easier said than done.
He makes it sound as if these political goals are easily attainable and it is this particular administration which is unwilling or incapable of achieving them.
First of all Armenia may ask to restore diplomatic relations with Turkey without preconditions, but what about the other party, Ankara? Doesn’t Ankara have its own preconditions?
Second, the recognition of Karabagh by the Armenian government is equivalent to a declaration of war. Historic justice is on the Armenian side but the other side is the one with the global political might.
Throughout the election campaign the ARF was waiting in the wings. It did not produce its own presidential candidate nor did it extend its support to any of the running candidates. Its election proclamation did not even mention Raffi Hovannisian. Instead, it stated that the party supports the “will of the people,” the equivalent of suggesting they like mom and apple pie. But with Hovannisian’s success comes a dramatic development: Armen Rustamian, an ARF leader, spoke at the Heritage Party’s rally and he began his speech by saying: “the Freedom Square was waiting for the ARF and here we come.” It seems once they thought they were behind a sure bet, they threw their weight behind the insurgent. They let Raffi pick the chestnuts from the fire and now they are ready to share in the victory.
Also joining the rally was Nikol Pashinian, who is always present whenever incendiary speeches are needed and insults are needed to be hurled at the president and the current administration.
The elections were not 100 percent honest by any means. Improvements are slow to come but they are already perceptible. Hovannisian’s emergence as a credible opposition leader will certainly expedite the improvement process. His presence and daily demonstrations are also a testament to the fact that the opposition can exist in Armenia.
However, those who voted for Sargisian had Armenia’s stability in mind. He is not a leader that will throw Armenia into an adventurous course. He is a man of peace and with his reelection there is some assurance that war is not yet an option.
Some pundits even have high hopes and beliefs that Mr. Sargisian is the leader capable of curbing the appetite of oligarchs.
During this post-election turmoil, there is a profusion of advice to Raffi Hovannisian. Die-hard opposition elements would like to see the struggle carried to the bitter end. Others have been advising him to capitalize on his success and negotiate a position of power to bring about change and reform. Two former prime ministers and presidential candidates, namely, Vazken Manoukian and Hrant Bagratian, have been advancing the idea of a coalition government with the ruling party. Some people even believe that Hovannisian is being manipulated and supported by outside forces and consequently he has to take into account their political agenda.
Armenia needs stability. The Turkish news media is already anticipating a crisis in Armenia and Azerbaijan is intensifying cross-border skirmishes, especially in the Tavoush region.
Change is needed, reforms are necessary and the people are desperate. But reforms cannot be achieved without concrete plans. Much of the change also depends on outside factors. No matter who heads the government, Armenia cannot lift the blockade nor can it resolve the Karabagh conflict overnight. What can be changed are the internal factors only: the end of corruption, the intensification of the economic recovery and a rule of law.
At this time, much hinges on Raffi Hovannisian’s actions. He can prove to be a spoiler or a true reformer. If he chooses wisely, he will be a part of Armenian history.