It was meant to be predictable, perhaps even boring. But with a season that included an attempted murder, a whole lot of flip flopping with possible election postponements and a hunger strike, Armenia’s 2013 Presidential Elections have been anything but. With disappearing ink, a hashtag takeover, fake Gallop polls, and two presidential candidates declaring victory over each other, the political atmosphere in Armenia is brewing with a potent mix of confusion as well as euphoria.
Five years after its previous election saw protests and demonstrations which ended in the death of 10 people as police units violently dispersed crowds and a 20 day state of emergency which included media censorship , incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan of the ruling Republican Party and Fresno-raised descendent of Armenian Genocide survivors, Heritage leader Raffi Hovannisian have gone head to head in a battle for the presidency in a country where apathy tends to reign supreme when it comes to politics.
Sargsyan, a Nagorno-Karabakh war veteran, won the term according to official Central Electoral Committee (CEC) Results, giving him a 59 percent victory over Hovannisian as well as five other candidates which included Paruyr Hayrikyan, a Soviet-era dissident who was shot and wounded during his bid for the presidency.
“Armenia chose the path towards a safe Armenia and I am happy and proud of the fact that every resident of Armenia will be on that path,” Sargysan was quoted as saying in Reuters.
While Russian president Vladimir Putin called to congratulate Sargsyan and mainstream press concentrated on declaring Sargsyan’s victory and moved on to the forever simmering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Iran’s nuclear arms race in relation to the South Caucasus country, the Armenian social media landscape, using the hashtag “#armvote13,” was overflowing. Reports of electoral fraud that included ballot stuffing (with a circulated photo of a not-so-well concealed incident), vote buying and bribing and disappearing ink, where the stamp placed in the passports of voters could be immediately wiped away with a damp cloth were coming in. The “#armvote13″ hashtag also received a brief disturbance from a pro-government Azerbaijani group called IRELI public union, which, according to a hashtag analysis by Katy Pearce, a communications scholar from the University of Washington specializing in the South Caucasus.
Narine Esmaeili, an election observer in Ardashat who noticed election irregularities from Sargsyan supporters was pushed against a wall and held while 30 men surrounded the ballot box in a local polling place. ”
Notes of a Spurkahye posts a nice summary of various instances of more instances, while iDitord, the web-based election irregularity monitoring program reported 393 instances of electoral fraud. [iDitord has covered the fraudulent practices in depth, urging the citizens of Armenia to report any and all suspicious activity.
Violence against journalists were also reported, as noted by Anna Barseghyan who wrote on the Internews-owned Media.am of an incident, among others, where reporters who attempted to videotape election day activities were threatened with having their throats cut.
This of course, was nothing new. Electoral fraud during Armenian elections is a common, documented occurrence, with both the May 2012 parliamentary elections and the 2008 Armenian Presidential elections marred by irregularities.
As the polls closed, Hovanissian and his campaign called a press conference in both Armenian and English, where he spoke of the Armenian people having returned “not only to the international community, but to our own nation,” of a new Armenia being born today. He also touched upon foreign policy issues concerning Armenia. “As we create our own democracy, the world must also recognize our rights,” Hovannisian said in regards to sovereignity of Nagorno-Karabakh and recognition fo the Armenian Genocide. Though he didn’t answer any questions, but at a press conference hours later, Hovannnisian, who, according to official results, received 37 percent of the vote, declared the elections “the people’s victory,” and himself as “the elected presidents of the Republic of Armenia.” Hovannisian is now expecting Sargsyan to concede by 5 p.m. tomorrow, during which a rally is meant to take place.
Just who exactly is the winner of Armenia’s 2013 presidential elections? According to official CEC results, Sargsyan. But for answer residents in Armenia and those observing as diasporans, bloggers and activists the answer still remains somewhat unclear, if not delayed.
“Following a short period of protest rallies, that are sure to follow, as I’m certain Raffi Hovannisian will just have to hold a couple of insignificant rallies to calm down his supporters, we will enjoy a prolonged period of political stability with no powerful opposition force to challenge the dominance of Serzh Sarkissian’s Republican party,” writes The Armenian Observer.
Unzipped sums up the elections with the same feeling, adding that Hovannisian cannot produce the sheer numbers needed for an ‘Armenian’ spring.
“Unless people took to the streets and make Raffi fight for his votes, it’s difficult to imagine any changes in election results,” the blog writes.
In addition to criticism of international observers, another point of contention is the Gallup exit polls conducted in the country, which are said to be ‘fake,’ having nothing to do with the actual U.S.-based polling company of the same name. These polls were widely referenced in major media outlets reporting on the Armenian elections and put Sargsyan at a major lead over Hovannisian.
In a show of solidarity, well-known opposition Azerbaijani activist and dissident Emin Milli released a statement via his Facebook page about perhaps the only thing Armenians and Azerbaijanis can agree on: both their countries remain tinged with corruption.
“First we have to get rid of our corrupt and criminal governments and leaders and only then we will start negotiating the peace agreement,” Milli wrote. “We, the people will negotiate the peace, not them, the criminals and the thieves!”
Armenia ranked 105 and Azerbaijan ranked 139 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Index, while neighboring country Georgia came in at 51.
As the exact outcome of the election remains muddled with two declarations of victories and future rallies in the coming days, perhaps the only thing that remains certain is Armenia’s continuing struggle to transition into a full blown democracy.
“What Armenians do know,” writes Security in the Caucasus and Beyond, “is that there were violations, and, that in their society, there are people who remain, as ever, above and beyond the law.”