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Presidential Elections in Republic of Armenia

Staff Report

The Republic of Armenia held Presidential elections on Tuesday, February 19 and Serge Sarkisian was elected as the third President of Armenia, garnering 52.8% of the popular vote. His main opponent Levon Ter-Petrosian won an estimated 21.5%, according to the Central Election Commission. 1.6 million voters cast their ballots- about 70% of the eligible voters.

Sarkisian was Prime Minister of Armenia and an ally of President Robert Kocharian. He is also head of the Republican party of Armenia. Sarkisian is from the region of Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that broke away from Azerbaijan in a bloody war in the early 1990s. A former head of the Karabagh army, Sarkisian has held key posts in the Armenian government, including as head of the Ministry of Interior and Defense Minister.

Ter-Petrosian accused the authorities of resorting to ballot-stuffing, vote-buying, and beating his activists who monitored the election. He asserted that he was actually the winner.

“These figures have nothing to do with reality, we are overwhelmingly ahead of them,” his spokesman, Arman Museian, said of the results announced by the election commission.

Since February 19, tens of thousands of supporters of Ter-Petrosian have been holding daily rallies in Armenia’s capital of Yerevan, to protest against what they see as massive vote rigging and to demand a re-run of the vote. The Armenian authorities have responded to the protests by arresting at least three opposition leaders and threatening to use force against the demonstrators.

An influential international observer mission said there were concerns about the vote count, but issued a generally positive assessment of the election.

The election was “mostly in line with the country’s international commitments, although further improvements are necessary,” the mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a preliminary statement.

The vote had shaped up as a two-horse race between Prime Minister Sarkisian, and Levon Ter-Petrosian, the former Armenian president forced to resign by Kocharian and Sarkisian almost a decade ago. The two rival camps fought a tough electoral battle, having already traded bitter accusations over their government records.

Ter-Petrosian, 63, was Armenia’s president from 1991 until his resignation in 1998. He broke 10 years of silence last year to announce his comeback bid for the presidency. Ter-Petrosian has called for a more conciliatory approach with neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkey, both of which have cut diplomatic ties and sealed their borders with Armenia.

Ter-Petrosian was elected leader of Soviet Armenia in 1990, shortly before its independence. He was elected the country’s first post-Soviet president in 1991 and re-elected in 1996, before he was forced to step down in 1998 for advocating concessions with Azerbaijan over Karabakh.

A total of 12 candidates initially announced plans to run for President, and nine succeeded in doing so. U.S.-born former Foreign Minister and Zharangutiun [Heritage] party Chairman Raffi Hovannisian was denied registration on the grounds that he acquired Armenian citizenship only in 2001; Armenia’s election law stipulates that presidential candidates must have been citizens of the Republic of Armenia for a minimum of 10 years prior to the ballot. Zharangutiun subsequently declined to throw its support behind another candidate. Nor Zhamanakner [New Times] party leader Aram Karapetian was similarly denied registration as he has not lived permanently in Armenia for the past decade. No explanation was given as to why that requirement did not render him ineligible to register for the 2003 presidential election, in which he polled fourth with 2.95 percent of the vote.

Two other major candidates vied for the open position.

Artur Baghdasarian, 39, is a former speaker of parliament who fell out with the government and joined the opposition. He received 16.67% of the vote to come in third. His Orinats Erkir [Rule of Law] party won nine seats in the 131-seat National Assembly in May’s parliamentary elections, the most of any opposition party. A former chairman of the French University in Armenia, Baghdasarian was seen as more pro-Western than the current government, which has fostered strong ties with Moscow. Baghdasarian was first elected to parliament in 1995. Re-elected in 1999 and 2003, he was the influential speaker from 2003 to 2006, when he was ousted for criticizing the authorities.

Vahan Hovhannesian, 41, is the deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament and the candidate of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), one of Armenia’s oldest political parties. He received 6.8% of the vote. Born in Yerevan, Hovannisian is a historian and archaeologist who was first elected to parliament in 1999. The party was banned in the early 1990s for an alleged plot to overthrow the government, but was a member of Kocharian’s governing coalition from 1998 until last year. It won 16 seats in May’s parliamentary elections and while not a member of the current coalition, continues to support the government.