Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 124

The May 12 parliamentary elections in Armenia, swept by political allies of President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian, were a massive blow to the country’s fragmented opposition. Most of its top leaders, including the two men who had nearly unseated Kocharian in the last presidential ballot, failed to win a single parliamentary seat and are now facing political oblivion.

To add insult to injury, Western election observers described the elections as largely democratic, essentially legitimizing their outcome. Opposition allegations of vote manipulation rang hollow in these circumstances, even if they were echoed by local media and observer reports. The Western stamp of approval demoralized even the most radical of the Armenian oppositionists, who had pledged to use the vote in another attempt at an anti-government “revolution.” Little wonder then that their post-election rallies in Yerevan were poorly attended and quickly ran out of steam.

But amid the overall doom and gloom there was one opposition politician who had something to celebrate. Raffi Hovannisian, a former U.S. citizen who had served as independent Armenia’s first foreign minister, made a much stronger showing than the more experienced opposition heavyweights. His Heritage party got almost 6% of the vote and earned seven seats in the National Assembly, becoming one of only two opposition groups represented in the 131-member legislature.

Heritage did particularly well in Yerevan, home to at least one-third of the electorate, winning over 13% of votes cast under the system of proportional representation, according to the government-controlled Central Election Commission (CEC). The CEC figures showed it garnering less than 3% in the rest of the country. The sharp disparity between the Heritage performance in and outside the Armenian capital was one of the most suspicious things about the official vote results. Even in Yerevan, Hovannisian’s party looked set to do even better shortly after the closure of polls on May 12. Early returns reported by some Armenian TV channels put it in second place behind Sarkisian’s Republican Party in electoral precincts across the city. In the event, the party barely cleared the 5% vote threshold for entering the parliament under the proportional system.

Not surprisingly, Hovannisian and his associates accused the authorities of stealing two-thirds of the votes cast for Heritage. Still, they chose to accept the parliamentary mandates allotted to them and not to boycott parliament sessions after Armenia’s Constitutional Court rejected opposition demands to invalidate the elections in early June. Hovannisian made it clear that he is ready for “horizontal cooperation” with the parliamentary majority, expressing hope that it will help to pass bills drafted by Heritage.

Hovannisian’s relative electoral success is widely attributed to an enduring, if inexplicable, public sympathy that the 47-year-old has developed ever since moving to Armenia from California in 1990. In late 1991, he was appointed by then president Levon Ter-Petrosian as foreign minister to oversee the newly independent country’s accession to international organizations and first diplomatic contacts with major world powers. Less than a year later he was unexpectedly sacked after delivering a speech in Istanbul that Ter-Petrosian found too emotional and hard-line. Many Armenians, increasingly disillusioned with their first post-communist leadership, found the move unjust. They increasingly began to associate Hovannisian with honesty and personal integrity, even though the ever-smiling mustachioed lawyer kept a low profile for the next ten years.

Hovannisian was among the prominent individuals who rallied behind Kocharian after the latter came to power in 1998. But he eventually fell out with the new president as well. Like Ter-Petrosian, Kocharian was not in a hurry to grant him Armenian citizenship for obviously political motives. Hovannisian got an Armenian passport only in 2001, which disqualified him from presidential election of 2003. (The Armenian constitution requires presidential candidates to have been citizens of and permanently resided in the country for at least ten years preceding an election. Hovannisian will also be unable to contest the next presidential election due in early 2008 for the same reason.)

Hovannisian joined Kocharian’s main opposition challenger, Stepan Demirchian, in rejecting the official outcome of that election. The Heritage leader burned the last remaining bridges with Kocharian with a December 2005 open letter in which he effectively implicated the Armenian leader in electoral fraud and even political killings. A few months later his party was controversially forced out of its state-owned offices in Yerevan. The party unsuccessfully challenged the politically motivated eviction in the court.

The dispute is still not over, with the Heritage leadership alleging that government agents illegally accessed the opposition party’s computer database and downloaded confidential information about its members and activities. The authorities have repeatedly denied the claims. Still, on June 22 a Yerevan court ordered state prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation into what Hovannisian has termed the “Armenian Watergate” scandal.

Armenians disaffected with the government voted for Heritage in large numbers despite the vagueness of its leader’s discourse. His pre-election speeches were largely made up of convoluted references to patriotism, freedom, and rule of law. The lack of specifics appears to have been offset by Hovannisian’s image as a “nice guy” and his casual U.S. style of campaigning. In the confusing abundance of opposition contenders, many disgruntled voters found him refreshing and more credible than established leaders like Demirchian.

Despite the election debacle, some of those oppositionists now plan to run for president and will be keen to be endorsed by Hovannisian, who will almost certainly be again barred from the contesting the 2008 election. But whether Hovannisian will throw his weight behind any of them or declare that a presidential election held in his absence is illegitimate is an open question.

(Aravot, June 23; Hayots Ashkhar, June 13; 168 Zham, June 12)