Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 96

Armenia’s main “party of power” scored a landslide victory in the May 12 parliamentary elections that were essentially recognized as legitimate by the West and significantly boosted Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian’s chances of succeeding President Robert Kocharian early next year. The development is a huge blow to the country’s divided opposition that has again alleged large-scale electoral fraud. Only two opposition parties, both of them pro-Western, managed to win seats in the new Armenian parliament.

According to the Central Election Commission (CEC), Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) won about 33% of votes cast under the system of proportional representation and swept at least half of the nationwide single-member constituencies. The HHK will thus directly control 65 parliament seats and rely on the backing of several non-partisan government-connected lawmakers, giving it an absolute majority in the 131-member National Assembly. The Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) of Gagik Tsarukian, a tycoon close to Kocharian, came in a distant second, getting nearly 15% of the vote and at least 25 parliament seats. It was followed by another pro-Kocharian party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), also known as Dashnaktsutiun. The latter will be represented in the legislature by 16 deputies.

On the opposition side, the Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party of former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party of U.S.-born former foreign minister Raffi Hovannisian made the strongest showing. Official vote results showed them winning nine and seven seats respectively. None of about a dozen other parties passed the 5% vote threshold for entering the parliament under the proportional system. These include the parties led by Kocharian’s two main challengers in the 2003 presidential election, Artashes Geghamian and Stepan Demirchian. The two populist leaders now look set to be relegated to political sidelines, having paid the price of their refusal to form electoral alliances with other opposition groups.

Virtually all opposition contenders have refused to accept the official election outcome, saying that it was decided by the HHK’s extensive government levers, unequal campaigning opportunities, voter intimidation, and especially vote buying. Throughout election day there were numerous reports of busloads of bribed people transported to polling stations across the country. Some opposition leaders claim that those people not only sold their votes to the HHK or the BHK but also voted in place of hundreds of thousands of Armenians that live and work abroad. Orinats Yerkir plans to appeal the official results in the Constitutional Court, while Armenia’s three most radical opposition groups have embarked on a campaign of anti-government street protests.

However, the radical opposition’s hopes for replicating the post-election revolutions in neighboring Georgia and other former Soviet republics were seriously dampened by the findings of some 400 election observers that were mainly deployed by the OSCE. The observer mission, which also included parliamentarians from the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, concluded in a May 13 preliminary report that the elections were “an improvement from previous elections and were conducted largely in accordance with international standards for democratic elections.” It was the most positive assessment of an Armenian election ever made by Western observers.

The European Union swiftly welcomed and endorsed their verdict, with the German presidency of the bloc noting “significant progress” in Armenia’s democratization. “I congratulate the people of Armenia on the improvements in the conduct of the parliamentary elections yesterday,” the EU’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said in a separate May 13 statement. Both Solana and Germany indicated that the EU will deepen ties with Armenia within its European Neighborhood Policy framework.

The U.S. State Department similarly welcomed an “improvement over past elections,” while cautioning that the vote “did not fully meet international standards.” Washington is now expected to release the first major installment of $236 million in promised economic assistance to Yerevan, which is part of the Bush administration’s Millennium Challenge Account program.

More importantly, the Western reaction to the conduct of the poll is a massive boost to the international reputation and democratic image of Armenia’s top leaders, which was severely tarnished by past elections that were marred by serious fraud. Their political opponents have lost a weighty argument for challenging their legitimacy. With the Armenian opposition demoralized and divided, Sarkisian can already start preparing for next year’s presidential election. Kocharian appears to have already agreed to hand over power to his most powerful associate, but he is expected to try to stay in government in some other capacity. Whether these plans sit well with Sarkisian remains unclear.

Assuming that there is friction between the two men, the election outcome is a setback for Tsarukian’s BHK, which is widely seen as Kocharian’s main tool for securing his political future. The party clearly hoped to make a stronger showing on the back of its leaders’ vast financial resources and populist appeal fuelled by his distribution of “humanitarian assistance” to impoverished Armenians. But even with what many view as wholesale vote buying, the BHK got only 204,000 votes, or half the number of members it claims to have.

With the HHK in practically full control of the newly elected parliament, Sarkisian will not be dependent on the BHK (and presumably Kocharian) in forming a government, if he becomes president of the republic. This also applies to Dashnaktsutiun. The nationalist party, which is particularly influential in the worldwide Armenian Diaspora, hoped to enhance its presence in government and, in particular, gain the post of defense minister as a result of the elections. And although Dashnaktsutiun has increased the number of its parliament seats, it will not in a position to claim a bigger slice of the government pie now. Its leaders effectively acknowledged this at a joint news conference on May 15. The party may well pull out of the governing coalition given the extent of the HHK landslide.

Sarkisian and other top Republicans have yet to publicly indicate whether they are willing to form a coalition cabinet with the BHK and/or Dashnaktsutiun or will share power only with Kocharian. The decision has to be made before the end of this month.

(Haykakan Zhamanak, May 13, 16; Azg, May 15; Aravot, May 14; Statements by the German presidency of the EU and Javier Solana, May 13; Preliminary Report by the OSCE-led International Election Observation Mission, May 13)