Armenia: Ruling Party Sweeps Aside Opposition

Personal and political triumph for new prime minister.

Armenia: Ruling Party Sweeps Aside Opposition

Personal and political triumph for new prime minister.

The decisive victory of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, RPA, in the May 12 parliamentary elections in Armenia, outperforming two other pro-government parties, Prosperous Armenia and Dashnaktsutiun, has bolstered the prospects of its leader, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, becoming the country’s next president.

Opposition politicians cried foul after the poll, after only five parties in a field of 23 won seats in parliament. In fourth and fifth place were Orinats Yerkir, a former member of the governing coalition, which has now gone into opposition and Heritage, an opposition party founded by Armenia’s first post-independence foreign minister, US-born Raffi Hovannisian.

The opposition movements National Unity and Justice were awarded only around four per cent and less than two per cent of the vote - and won no seats.

International observers gave the elections their cautious endorsement, thus securing millions of dollars of international funding that had been contingent on the monitors’ recognition of the poll.

Ninety of the 131 seats were appointed on a proportional party list system; the remainder on a constituency basis.

After securing around a third of the popular vote and a string of constituency seats, the RPA gained 65 seats in parliament, leaving it just one seat short of an overall majority. Prosperous Armenia and Dashnaktsutiun won 26 and 16 seats respectively, Orinats Yerkir ended up with ten and Heritage with seven.

Nine of the single-constituency seats went to independent candidates and one to a new party set up by the former Karabakh defence minister Samvel Babayan.

“I would like this election to be evaluated by our people and the many observers as the best election in the country’s history,” Sarkisian said after the poll.

Sarkisian, long-running defence minister of Armenia, has emerged for the first time in this campaign as a public politician, with presidential ambitions.

“If the Republican Party of Armenia takes the appropriate decision I will take part in the presidential elections in 2008,” he announced on May 16.

Sarkisian’s position was boosted by the fact that the RPA strongly out-performed the other pro-government parties in the contest.

As soon as the initial results were announced, Armenia’s current president - and long-time friend and colleague of Sarkisian - Robert Kocharian hailed the election result and paid a visit to RPA headquarters.

The day before polling began, Kocharian told Armenian television that he wanted to see the RPA and Prosperous Armenia secure significant representation in parliament and predicted that neither party would win the absolute majority required to form a government.

Things did not turn out quite like this. “If you consider that the overwhelming majority of the leaders of local organs of power are members of the RPA it was obvious that the authorities locally would work exclusively for the RPA and not for the two [pro-government] parties, as was supposed earlier,” said Harutiun Khachatrian, a commentator with Noyan Tapan news agency.

Some observers say Kocharian is annoyed that the RPA received twice as many votes as Prosperous Armenia, with which he was closely associated and that the parliament is now dominated by one party.

One of the RPA’s leaders, Samvel Nikoyan, said that the party might try to govern on its own or might join forces with Prosperous Armenia and Dashnaktsutiun.

Sarkisian was also buoyed by a generally positive verdict from international observers of the poll - a better verdict than the one they gave in the last elections in 2003.

Leo Platvoet, head of the observer delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, told reporters, “Тhe campaign and election had had both positive and negative characteristics. It's not black, and it's not white. But it's more white than black."

US State Department spokesman Tom Casey was also careful in his choice of words.

“The election infrastructure has been greatly improved and…this is a step in the right direction towards meeting international standards,” he said.

“All and all, I think this is an improvement over past elections; though certainly if you look at what the observers said, it did not fully meet international standards.”

He added that claims of fraud should be investigated.

The international comments enraged opposition parties, which had spent much of the campaign complaining about intimidation, violent incidents and lack of access to the media.

Analysts said the authorities ran a clever campaign that outsmarted their opponents with their tactic of sponsoring two pro-government parties and carefully controlling most television coverage.

Three of the nine members of the central electoral commission representing opposition parties refused to sign the official protocol confirming the results. The Orinats Yerkir representative Sona Sarkisian said her party intended to appeal the results in the constitutional court.

“The election was rigged abominably,” Nikol Pashinian of the opposition bloc Impeachment told a rally the day after the poll. “An outrageous crime has been committed. Basically this is a coup d’etat designed by Robert Kocharian, Serzh Sarkisian and their puppets.”

Pro-opposition newspapers published allegations of bribe-giving by some parties during the election campaign. They presented evidence that the head of Prosperous Armenia, former arm-wrestling champion Gagik Tsarukian, who is one of the country’s wealthiest men, handed out seed grain and potatoes in villages as well as farming tools and even machinery for free.

“That was not an election campaign, but a bribe distribution campaign,” said Ashot Melikian of the Yerevan Press Club.

Members of pro-government parties say they were engaged in charity work, not election campaigning - a position endorsed by President Kocharian, who said, “Bribes should not be confused with charity.”

The prosecutor’s office said that most claims of violations had been proved unfounded.

Radical opposition groups held a protest rally on Freedom Square in Yerevan, but far fewer people turned up than at a rally during the election campaign itself. A march on the electoral commission offices also attracted relatively small numbers.

Many commentators have given a harsh verdict on the opposition’s elections tactics.

“I think the opposition should learn the lesson from its defeat in the election,” chairman of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia Avetik Ishkhanian told IWPR. He said that had the opposition managed to unite before the elections, it would have been in a much stronger position to withstand the pressure exerted by the pro-government parties.

“The authorities have outwitted the opposition on all levels with their financial, administrative, political and human resources,” said political observer David Petrosian. “It would be logical in this situation if the opposition united. But a series of leaders of the opposition and the political parties they lead considered they were self-sufficient and decided to take part in the elections separately.

“The calls of those leaders who insisted on an alliance and in particular, the leader of Heritage Raffi Hovannisian were not heeded.”

Rita Karapetian is a correspondent with the Noyan Topan news agency in Yerevan.

Karabakh, Armenia
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