Court ruling dashes hopes of Armenian opposition

By bne IntelliNews March 19, 2013

Clare Nuttall in Astana -

Armenia's Constitutional Court on March 14 rejected an appeal by Raffi Hovhannisyan, the runner-up in the February presidential elections, effectively bringing to an end opposition efforts to prevent Serzh Sargsyan's re-inauguration. Hovhannisyan has declared he will fight on, but the court's ruling has ended expectations of mass unrest on the scale that followed the last presidential election in 2008. As Armenia waits for Sargsyan to be inaugurated on April 9, the more lasting impact of the opposition protests may be in creating pressure for reform during his second term as president.

The court upheld the Sargsyan victory in the first round of voting on February 18, despite claims from Hovhannisyan, leader of the Heritage Party and a former finance minister, that the result had been rigged. The court said that there had been no violations during the election that could have affected its result.

Hovhannisyan, the runner-up with 36.7% of the vote to Sargsyan's 58.6%, claimed that he was the real winner of the election. Immediately after the election, his supporters said they had observed violations of the voting process including ballot stuffing and the removal of stamps from voters' passports. In the weeks since the election, Hovhannisyan's supporters have organised a series of demonstrations in the capital Yerevan, with the largest attracting up to 5,000 people. As support for his protests gradually dwindled, on March 10 Hovhannisyan started a hunger strike and called on Sargsyan to step down before April 9.

However, the court's verdict is bolstered by reports from international election observers that said whatever violations of the electoral process occurred, they were not sufficient to have affected the end result of the election. The post-election report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) observer mission concluded that the election was "generally well-administered and was characterized by a respect for fundamental freedoms." The February 18 report did note, however, "a lack of impartiality of the public administration, misuse of administrative resources, and cases of pressure on voters", as well as "undue interference".

Hovhannisyan did take considerably more votes than was predicted. An opinion poll carried out by Gallup International on February 2-5 put him in second place with an expected 24% of the vote - well below the 36.7% he received on election day. The decision by fellow opposition leaders such as former president Levon Ter-Petrossian and Prosperous Party leader Gagik Tsarukian meant that the anti-Sargsyan vote was concentrated on Hovhannisyan, with no other candidate taking more than 3%.

Hovhannisyan's campaign to have the result overturned also provided a unifying force for Armenia's fragmented opposition, with other leaders including Ter-Petrossian saying they considered the election to have been rigged.

Following the constitutional court's ruling, however, the opposition seems to have run out of steam. "It is clear now that things are returning to normal," Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center, tells bne. "Despite higher levels of discontent, the opposition reaction is both leaderless and rudderless. Instead of focusing on the May 2013 municipal elections, which represents an opportunity to build a power base, they are resignation of the president which is not only unlikely but impossible."

New term

Sargsyan is now preparing for his inauguration on April 9, and is set to start the new term on a firmer footing than when he first became president in 2008. None of the opposition protests were as large as those seen after the February 2008 elections, which were violently put down by Armenia's security forces resulting in 10 deaths. These events seriously tarnished Sargsyan's legitimacy at the start of his first term in office.

There are now expectations of greater reform following his re-election. The economy has performed relatively well in recent years, rebounding strongly from the depths of the economic crisis in 2009, with the International Monetary Fund estimating 3.9% GDP growth in 2012. On the political front, Sargsyan has opened a dialogue with the opposition in an attempt to heal the breach caused by the 2008 elections, and the country has made modest progress in fighting corruption, rising on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index from 120th place in 2009 to 105th in 2012.

Given the unrest after the 2013 elections, Giragosian tells bne that the government could take the right lesson that it's very dangerous for any incumbent government to ignore popular demands for change. "Counter-intuitively, this may have a positive impact on the government by accelerating reforms," he says. Key changes on the cards include working towards agreeing a free trade area and association agreement with the EU.

There are also signs that Sargsyan is planning top-level personnel changes. Under the Armenian constitution, the government has to resign on inauguration day, which takes place 50 days after the presidential election. A prime minister has to be appointed within 10 days of inauguration, and a new government no more than 20 days later. In late February, rumours emerged in the Armenian press that Sargyan was planning to replace Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan. Former Yerevan mayor Karen Karapetyan, who is now vice-president of Russia's Gazprombank, was reported by Zhoghovurd to have returned from Moscow to Yerevan for talks with Sargsyan's Republican Party of Armenia sparking speculation that he is a possible candidate.

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