All of these developments are vital for Armenia’s relations with Europe, and the European Commission, which last year included Armenia in the small group of countries benefitting from the “more aid for more reforms” principle, now seeks to conclude a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement before the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius this coming November. The trouble of the presidential elections of 18 February is that some problems of manipulation still persisted and that the oppositional part of the society now believes that these remaining problems have changed the outcome of the elections, challenging the 58.6% official first round victory of the incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan.
In all democratic countries, some of these “cases of…”, as the observers reported, can still be found. The key question is not so much WHAT they find, but the scale. The international observer missions denied that the outcome of the elections was changed. For this, more than 125.000 votes would have had to be changed and while the change of even just a few thousand votes is a scandal, none of the highly qualified observer missions was able to detect a massive organised manipulation on the scale of 125.000 votes. From the perspective of a critical or oppositional citizen, however, you will remember many manipulated elections in Armenia, and you will naturally be alarmed and in disbelieve to hear about hundreds of cases of violating Armenia’s electoral laws also this time. You will also find it difficult to believe the international observers in that the documented misuse of administrative resources and the cases of voter intimidation were not significant enough to change the outcome of the elections. Using these sentiments, Raffi Hovannisian on 19 February claimed to have received 80%, meaning 635.000 more votes than his official result. To be fair, the Armenian authorities would possess supernatural powers if they managed to organise a manipulation (before and on Election Day) of nearly every second vote in the country while hiding all this from hundreds of experienced European observers. Besides, the latest TNS poll before the election, the one with the strongest foreign supervision, quality control and transparency, was not influenced by any cases of vote-buying, voter intimidation, ballot stuffing or miscounting, but the results were very similar to the official election results.
I believe Raffi Hovannisian when he says that he does not want to see any violence or revolution. His style of campaigning was also healthy for Armenia’s democracy and his on-going post-electoral tour is another sign of this style, which reaches out to the society. It is good and noteworthy that today, people even in the countryside feel that they can join such public rallies without fear. However, I am currently a bit lost as to what his strategy is, because he knows Armenian politics long enough to know that nobody can simply “convince” the authorities to hand over the presidency, and that the chances of this happening are close to zero when the results of the observations and of the elections are as clear as they are. Besides, his public announcements are so far very vague, like a mobilisation without a visible goal or path. There is a danger that his current struggle will among the disappointed part of the society only raise hope for something which he cannot deliver. Meanwhile, it increases public distrust and discontent even further, leads to even more emigration and weakens the country on the inside and outside. From our meetings I know that this would actually be the opposite of what he wants for Armenia and of what he believes in. So we will need to see how things will develop in the coming weeks: maybe all this is just a normal political stand-off to pressure the government for more reforms while saving his face and avoiding looking like a loser. By the way, I think he is absolutely no loser, because he managed to build up a united oppositional support which most experts would have thought impossible only three months ago. One realistic strategy would now be to transform this into a lasting political movement which soon enough can really win elections. The time between New Year and Election Day was naturally not enough to build up such a movement.
On the side of the authorities, there should now be thorough investigations into who violated the electoral code and with that produced a burdenfor their own candidate, Serzh Sargsyan. One motivation for genuine investigations and prosecutions may be that they could in some cases find perpetrators who had the political intention to damage the incumbent. In any case, the President needs to clean up his own camp to some extent, if he wants that camp to be strong in the long run. Apart from that, the President declared that he will now focus on internal economic and institutional reforms and the more he manages to show successes of these reforms, the more will he be able to gain respect of not only his own voters but of all Armenians. With that, the coming five years can make Armenia move further away from the low-point of 1 March 2008, and the changes can be so fundamental that they will be irreversible and visible for all.