Armenia: Sarkisian Poll Triumph Challenged

Opposition promises mass protests after official candidate declared president.

Armenia: Sarkisian Poll Triumph Challenged

Opposition promises mass protests after official candidate declared president.

Monday, 25 February, 2008
The official results in Armenia’s presidential elections show a first-round victory for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, but the opposition is crying foul and calling protests to contest the verdict.

Figures, released by the central electoral commission, show Sarkisian having received almost 53 per cent of the vote, with his main rival former President Levon Ter-Petrosian picking up 21.5 per cent. Former speaker of parliament Artur Baghdasarian was awarded 12 per cent of the vote, with the other six candidates far behind.

Outgoing president and fellow Karabakh Armenian Robert Kocharian, a close associate of Sarkisian’s for more than 20 years, was quick to congratulate Sarkisian on his victory and made a call for unity.

“It’s important that in the period after the elections every citizen of Armenia is aware that the president of the republic cannot divide society into ‘us’ and ‘them’,” said Kocharian. “I am sure that Serzh Sarkisian, elected to the post of president, can unite society and create an atmosphere of mutual understanding and tolerance.”

However, on February 20, the opposition, which disputed the results organised a rally and mass march through the streets of Yerevan. Tens of thousands of demonstrators filled the whole of the city’s main avenue, Mashtots, chanting “fight, fight to the end”, “Levon is president”, and “Serzhik, leave!” as they walked through the city to the central electoral commission. Some stayed on Yerevan’s Freedom Square into the evening.

The electoral commission said that around 70 per cent of voters – or 1,670,000 of an electorate of 2,230,000 – had cast their ballots.

Ter-Petrosian told his supporters that according to his calculations the number of people who had voted was actually 1.1 million and that a lot of false ballot papers had been put in boxes.

“Our fight will not stop till our final victory,” said Nikol Pashinian, one of Ter-Petrosian’s campaign team. “We will never surrender the Republic of Armenia and we will not give our children up to the jackals of Kocharian and Serzh.”

Differing exit-polls clouded the waters. One by the British firm, Populus, was close to the official result, giving Sarkisian 57 per cent and Ter-Petrosian 17 per cent. However, critics pointed out that the exit poll was commissioned by the pro-government Public Television and the data came from the pro-government Armenian Sociological Association.

Another poll, by the non-governmental organisation Alliance, gave Ter-Petrosian 38 per cent of the vote and Sarkisian 35 per cent. A third poll by the organisation Alfa GA said that Ter-Petrosian had won – but the Armenian justice ministry said Alfa GA was not a registered organisation.

With such a lot at stake, everyone was keen to hear the verdict of the 600 international observers who, along with local observers, were monitoring the poll. They basically backed the official results.

The joint observer mission from the Council of Europe and Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a statement that the conduct of the election was “mostly in line with the country's international commitments, although further improvements are necessary”.

“Compared to the previous presidential elections, significant progress was noted with regard to the preparation and conduct of the electoral process," said Marie Anne Isler, head of the European parliament contingent within the OSCE mission.

This was an unusually bitter election which culminated in violent incidents and clashes on February 19, polling day.

Supporters of the opposition registered complaints about voters being bribed, people voting twice and ballot-stuffing. There were several reports that opposition proxies - sent to represent their candidates at polling stations - had been beaten up.

Member of parliament Armen Martirosian and Lusine Barsegian, a correspondent for the opposition newspaper Haikakak Zhamanak, said they were beaten at a polling station in the district of Erebuni, where they were recording alleged falsifications. Barsegian said her camera and dictaphone were seized from her.

The prime minister’s campaign headquarters declared that these incidents had been staged by Ter-Petrosian’s supporters in order to discredit their candidate. Sarkisian’s spokesman Edvard Sharmazanov told IWPR that Ter-Petrosian’s campaign was arranging for its own proxies to be beaten and then relaying this information to friendly media outlets. “The aim is clear, to cast a shadow on the elections,” he said.

General prosecutor’s office press secretary Sonya Truzian said that 20 complaints had been received about violations and seven criminal charges had been opened, but that most of the violations had been committed by supporters of Ter-Petrosian.

The Orinats Yerkir party of third-placed candidate Artur Baghdasarian issued a statement calling for a recount in more than 200 polling stations where falsifications had been alleged.

“We declare that attempts to prevent a review of the final results of the elections with violations of the constitution and law of the Republic of Armenia carry a danger of public disorder,” said the opposition party.

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

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