Armenia's election message

A flawed presidential vote that confirms the incumbent in power also exposes anew the dysfunction of democracy in post-Soviet states, says Krzysztof Bobinski

Krzysztof Bobinski
21 March 2013

An election in Armenia, as in other post-Soviet states, is more than just a contest between rival politicians. It is also a test for local administrations and managers in the state sector to get citizens to vote for the party in power. In eastern Europe's election jargon, this is called the"misuse of administrative resources" - and has long been criticised by independent election monitors. But just as regularly, local officials ignore this criticism, for they know their jobs are on the line if they fail to secure a favourable result for the ruling party.

An incident following the presidential election in Armenia on 18 February 2013 reveals the process at work. Ashot Gharagyosyan, the director of a school in Arabkir, a district of Yerevan, went to the office of an online magazine called Hetq with a complaint: the local council offices had summoned him and told him to resign because Armenia's incumbent president, Serzh Sargsyan, had failed to win the vote in Arabkir.

“They asked me why Serzh Sargsyan lost in Arabkir. I told them I didn’t know. I said I was never the head of the election committee or of the local campaign HQ. I wasn’t responsible for anything. I told them I was never given any responsibility for collecting votes”, Hetq reports. “They told me I should write a letter of resignation. I asked why. They said because all of us had failed the president in Arabkir. I asked what connection did I have in the matter and that I was only performing my work in the school.”

Mr Gharagyosyan was informed by local officials of the ruling Republican Party that his successor at the school had already been chosen, and that the new appointee has already been "paid off". "The money he has received means he will do everything to bring in votes at the next election”, the now ex-director was told.

The officials knew that they have to move fast: Armenia's opposition is already mobilising for Yerevan's municipal elections in May 2013, leading with an accusation that the presidential poll was stolen. In addition, NGOs will be monitoring the capital city's elections in an attempt to minimise fraud.

The Armenian election never really caught the attention of the international press. It is unlikely that the presidential elections in Georgia and Azerbaijan in October 2013 will do so, even less Yerevan's local ones. But attention should be paid, for the elections are also a test of the European Union’s "Eastern Partnership" policy towards the post-Soviet states which aims to align them with European practice (and at some point in the future put them on course for EU membership). The EU policy is based on negotiating "deep and comprehensive free-trade area" (DCFTA) agreements with the neighbourhood; this would see the post-Soviet states agreeing to implement a great deal of EU legislation, but also adhering to democratic standards such as free and fair elections.

In Azerbaijan, the chances of a clean election are faint. The opposition faces harassment, demonstrations in Baku are broken up, and legislation is being passed to limit the activities of NGOs. In Georgia, by contrast, the situation is more hopeful. There, a new opposition under the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili won parliamentary elections on 1 October 2012, and the acceptance of the result by President Mikhail Saakashvili allowed a peaceful transfer of power. More recently, government and opposition have agreed on a common pro-western foreign policy which should pathe the way to a DCFTA and closer relations with the EU.

The chance for change

The democractic success in Georgia encouraged young pro-democracy activists in Armenia, tired of the endless fraud around elections and the cynical deals cut between ruling parties and the opposition. The latter have prompted people either to stay away from the polls or vote in the way officials wanted in return for a bribe. But the election on 18 February also saw a groundswell of protest which favoured Raffi Hovannisian, leader of the small Heritage Party (Hovannisian was born and educated in California and came to Armenia in 1990).

The authorities did everything possible to ensure the right result. The local administration used public employees in schools (such as Mr Gharaghyosyan), hospitals, municipal services and condominiums to bribe, persuade or simply intimidate citizens to vote for the president. The fact that many names on the electoral roll were of Armenians who had emigrated was a further opportunity for fraud.

It seemed to work, as the official results gave Serzh Sargsyan 59% of the votes against Raffi Hovannisian's 37%. Hovannisyan immediately challenged this, organising rallies in Yerevan and regional centres which claimed that he was the real winner. Reports from election monitors suggested that there indeed had been significant fraud, and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODiHR) - the very experienced monitoring organisation of the OSCE - noted that "an analysis of official results shows a correlation between very high turnout and the number of votes for the incumbent. This raises concern over the integrity of the electoral process". In everyday language this means that when the president's people in polling-stations realised that he was losing and needed artificial support, they stuffed the ballot-boxes with papers supporting him; hence the higher than average turnout in places where backing for the incumbent soared.

Yet even the published results show that the ruling party has been severely weakened - something reflected in a comment made to Mr Gharaghosyan by one of those who sacked him ("All of us have failed the president"). More importantly, Serzh Sargsyan - who needs significant funding from the EU - has been telling top figures in Brussels that in the wake of his re-election he will move ahead with talks on the DCFTA. A finalisation of any such agreement - which could happen in autumn 2014, when a summit of EU heads of government and of the Eastern Partnership countries is scheduled to take place in Vilnius - it would then have to be implemented. And that would mean challenging some of the powerful and rich vested interests that have come to support Sargsyan’s Republican Party

For the moment, the Armenian authorities are waiting for the local protest movement to fade. The constitutional court on 14 March rejected charges that the election was fixed, leaving Sargsyan to be inaugurated for a new term on 9 April. But in the Yerevan elections in May, Raffi Hoavnnisian (who announced a hunger-strike on 10 March) could yet stand at the head of an opposition alliance, posing a fresh problem to Armenia’s rulers.

A flawed political system in the post-Soviet states - where power is held by cynical politicians and their rich backers, where corruption is widespread and acquiescence in it routine - makes for little more than a parody of western democracy. But it also increases the pressure for peaceful change, and here elections - fraudulent as they have been, and disllusioned as citizens may be - still provide the best route.

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