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Presidential election in Armenia 02/25/2003
Presidential election in Armenia
by Edmond Azadian

It was too good to be true.  The election campaign in Armenia was conducted in an orderly and smooth fashion, except for two incidents that marred the process for a while - the assassination of Tigran Naghdalian, director of public TV, and the stabbing of an opposition member of the parliament.  Although serious in themselves, these incidents did not impact heavily the election campaign and the electoral process.

Initially, sixteen candidates were registered, but by Election Day, February 19, that number had dwindled by six; therefore, nine candidates took part in the election.  It is hard to define the abundance of candidates.  Should we interpret it as an excess of democracy or as an expression of immaturity in the field of democratic processes?

Many of the candidates were not serious, and did not consider their chances anything but zero.  However, the large number gave the voters a choice and a very vivid and colorful atmosphere to the election campaign.

The outcome of the election was inconclusive as Armenia's constitution mandates over 50% simple majority vote for any candidate to be elected in the first round.  Incumbent President Robert Kocharian garnered 49.8$ of the votes, while his closest contender, Stepan Demirchian, received 28.3% of the votes - respectable by all accounts.  The former Mayor of Yerevan, Artashes Geghamian, trailed the two leaders with 17% of the votes.

The two main contenders now face a run-off election on March 5.  In view of the distribution of votes, it is very important to observe the realignment of the candidates, which may forecast a pattern for the next round of voting.  Thus, opposition candidates Vazgen Manukian, Aram Sargsian, Aram Karapetian and Ruben Avagian immediately lent their support to opposition candidate Stepan Demirchian.  Given the meager number of votes those candidates were able to receive, however, that endorsement remains insignificant.  More significant is Geghamian's position, since he ranked third with his 17% standing.  Geghamian decided to support neither candidate, and expressed his dissatisfaction with the elections.  It is believed that Geghamian's position will overwhelmingly enhance the position of the incumbent who is already slated to win by a large margin.

The two candidates will be running on their own records of achievement.  Kocharian is relying on his experience as the organizer of the Karabagh defense forces that were able to liberate the enclave from oppressive Azeri rule.  But above all, he is counting on the political stability and impressive economic recovery that he was able to achieve during his first term as President, coupled with a very prudent foreign policy in an unstable region of the world.  Although poverty is still rampant, Kocharian has been able to build enough confidence to entice foreign investors and benefactors to give an impressive facelift to the capital city of Yerevan and other major cities and towns, especially to earthquake-stricken Gumry, which has lain in ruins since 1988.

On the other hand, Stepan Demirchian emerged as a young and charismatic leader, slender and impressive in posture, but without any experience in statecraft.  Almost 400,000 people voted for Demirchian, mostly compelled by the nostalgia of his father, Karen Demirchian, who was assassinated during the parliament massacre of October 27, 2000, leaving an aura, a legacy of martyrdom for his son to capitalize on.

What followed the election was an extremely dangerous and destabilizing situation, as the losing candidates resorted to street incitements and banned political rallies, claiming a flawed election.  What is more alarming is that almost all of the losing candidates or their associates have threatened to resort to violence, banking on the fear of the authorities to see the country destabilized.  Since Armenia counts lar ge masses under the poverty line, it is relatively easy and convenient for any demagogue to manipulate their dissatisfaction to their own political ends.  The same tactics were used to oust the first president, blaming him for all the social and economic ills of the country.  But after his removal from the scene, the same ills continued to fester, proving that political education of the masses is not an easy task.

Almost all opposition candidates issued warnings of violence.  Demirchian himself joined the opposition leaders to sign a declaration that said: "We remind that attempts to usurp power is a grave crime.  Robert Kocharian will bear responsibility for its consequences".

Artashes Geghamian announced that once opposition comes to power, the incumbent president and his group will be executed, while Aram Sargsian, the brother of former Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian,  Albert Bazeyan and Aram Karapetian made similar unveiled threats.

February 22 and 23 witnessed massive rallies in front of the Madenataran, with slogans claiming that the election was rigged, and that President Kocharian must resign.  Some even threatened to use force in case he refused to resign.

All this public demonstration of outrage played into the hands of the Azeris and Western media, which were present with the determination of nit picking.  Also into the hands of outside forces who stand to reap political dividends in destabilizing Armenia.

The rallies were not sanctioned.  Any civilized country's law enforcement officers would have banned such unauthorized gatherings, and the opposition was counting on that to cry foul and to accuse the government of curbing civil liberties.  But they were disappointed in their calculations because the authorities, except for issuing some stern warnings, arrested only a few activists caught in violence and arson.  The government's reaction was restrained.

There were hundreds of observers to monitor the elections.  The observers were comprised of two major groups: A mission, sent from CIS countries, announced, "The Presidential election in Armenia was free, fair, transparent, democratic and legitimate".  Executive Secretary of the Commonwealth, Yuri Yarov, declared that the "election was held in conformity with the Electoral Legislation and in conformity with international standards".

The second group of observers was under the umbrella of the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) of the OSCE Office from Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

In its turn, this latter group issued its report, which after a positive introduction, went into very technical details, criticizing many aspects of the election, certainly not properly handled even in European democracies, let alone in newly emerging countries like Armenia.

The report stated in particular that: "The 19 February 2003 Presidential election in the Republic of Armenia was generally calm and well administered, but the counting process was flawed and the long-term election process fell short of international standards in several key respects.  This election provided an important test of progress of democratic practices in Armenia.  The participation of nine candidates provided voters with genuine choice.  A recently amended election law provides a basis for democratic elections.  The election administration carried out the technical preparations for the election in a satisfactory manner."

The report then gets into details, cites some instances of irregularities and even speculates on hypothetical situations.

In short, with all the flaws, all observers have concluded that there is marked improvement over previous elections.  Specifically, no one claims that improprieties and irregularities would seriously have impacted the outcome of the election.

Obviously, both reports are tainted and politically motivated.  Armenia, being in Russia's camp, the CIS report was bound to give a clean bill of health to the election, and the OSCE report had to be more critical.

All substantiated grievances can be taken to the Constitutional Court or to the European Union Court.  Some 30 cases have been reported to the Central Election Commission thus far.

What the opposition candidates could not achieve at the ballot boxes, they tried to achieve in street rallies.  Only the candidate Geghamian demonstrated the wisdom of not resorting to such action, announcing that the time for resolving problems in the street has passed.

President Kocharian has challenged Stepan Demirchian to a TV debate.  After initial hesitation and refusal, the latter has agreed to take up the challenge.

As the election problems and the campaign rise from the street level to the more civilized media of debate, the prospects of healthy democracy improve tremendously.

We do hope that people's lives, Armenia's stability and the future do not fall prey to shortsighted political games, and that a civilized discourse ushers the most deserving candidate to the Presidential Palace.

February 25, 2003
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