Armenia Election - 2008
Armenia held presidential elections on February 19, 2008 in which the term-limited incumbent could not run. The elections, while originally deemed by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to be "mostly in line" with OSCE standards, were later seen to be marred by credible claims of ballot stuffing, intimidation (and even beatings) of poll workers and proxies, vote buying, and other irregularities. Recounts were requested, but ODIHR observers noted "shortcomings in the recount process, including discrepancies and mistakes, some of which raise questions over the impartiality of the [electoral commissions] concerned."
Mass protests followed the disputed vote. For 10 days, large crowds of pro-opposition demonstrators gathered in Yerevan's downtown Freedom Square. Police and security forces entered Freedom Square early in the morning on March 1, 2008, ostensibly to investigate reports of hidden weapons caches. This operation turned into a forced dispersal of demonstrators from Freedom Square by massed riot police. Following the clearing of Freedom Square, clashes erupted in the afternoon between massed demonstrators and security personnel, and continued throughout the day and evening, leading to ten deaths and hundreds of injuries. President Kocharian decreed a 20-day state of emergency in Yerevan late on March 1, which sharply curtailed freedom of media and assembly. Dozens of opposition supporters were jailed in the wake of the violence, in proceedings that many international watchdog groups have criticized as politically motivated. Armenia's media freedom climate and freedom of assembly remained poor overall, though somewhat improved after the state of emergency was lifted.
In April 2008 Serzh Sargsian of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) was sworn in as president, replacing Robert Kocharian. Serzh Sargsian had a head start on Kocharian when it came to gaining control of lucrative economic assets. Though both men are Karabakhis, Sargsian came to a Yerevan and took up the first of a string of powerful ministerial posts five years earlier than Kocharian, who remained in Nagorno-Karabakh until 1998. In ten years as president, Kocharian caught up to Sargsian and it evolved to the point that most of the dominant business and economic sectors were in some way linked to one of the two of them. With Sargsian's rise to the presidency, several oligarchs switched their allegiance to Sargsian.
Sargsian and Kocharian shared a significant amount of revenues from a number of government and business revenue streams. While unclear on how much revenues they share in reality, it is safe to assume that the sources of this revenue stream include customs proceeds, bribes, and other illegal payments. The traffic police agency -- infamous for extorting fines from motorists, which are then shared up the hierarchy -- was previously controlled by then deputy defense minister and Yerkrapah leader General Manvel Grigorian, who had been Kocharian's man. But Grigorian all-but-publically switched allegiance to LTP after the election, and was consequently stripped of many of his assets. Now Serzh Sargsian controlled the traffic police revenue stream, while at the same time making a public show of speaking out against such abuses.
In the National Assembly, the RPA continued to dominate the ruling coalition, which decreased from four parties to three on 27 April 2009, when the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun) resigned from the coalition citing differences over the conduct of foreign policy. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces, although some members of the security forces continued to commit human rights abuses with impunity while under the direction of civilian leadership.
The National Assembly launched a parliamentary ad hoc commission tasked with an inquiry into the events of March 1-2, 2008. The ad hoc commission showed early promise, despite concerns about its pro-government composition. The commission members summoned senior government officials to testify in public hearings, and subjected them to probing questions. This effort was expanded by a presidential directive on October 23, 2008 that formed an independent fact-finding group tasked to support and report to the ad hoc commission. It was composed of members appointed in equal numbers by ruling and opposition parties. These initiatives to uncover the truth about the March 1 events have been welcome, albeit imperfect, steps to provide public accountability.
On September 16-17, 2009, approximately 16 months after its establishment, the ad hoc parliamentary commission released its findings on the March 2008 post-election events and 10 resulting deaths. The report stated that the commission was unable to shed more light onto the circumstances of the deaths and urged law enforcement authorities to do more to identify, track down, and prosecute individuals responsible for the deaths. Relatives of the civilian victims protested the commission's findings and demonstrated before the parliament for a full, objective accounting of the deaths. The report blamed authorities, the opposition, and the media alike for escalating the election-related tensions that preceded the clashes. The report criticized electronic media for biased coverage in the period prior to the election, which added to the public's distrust of authorities. But the report assigned most of the blame for the violent unrest on the opposition, accusing presidential candidate and former president Levon Ter-Petrossian of poisoning the preelection period.
Armenian politics is winner-take-all, and this very much applies not only to the political spoils, but very often to the leading business and economic spoils as well. This is one reason that Armenian politics became so implacable. Moreover, one outcome of the 2008 presidential election was the break-down of a tacit "live and let live" pact that had previously allowed some business figures who supported former President Levon Ter-Petrossian (LTP) -- most notably by oligarch Khachatur "Grzo" Sukiasian, who controlled the SIL Group of businesses -- to continue to hold lucrative interests after Ter-Petrossian's 1998 ouster. When LTP fell in what amounted to a non-violent palace coup, one of the unspoken deals was that so long as LTP and his business allies kept out of politics and made no trouble for the new regime, they would be left alone. With Grzo's open support of LTP's 2008 presidential campaign, all bets were off. The SIL Group was substantially disassembled, and its most lucrative assets seized and effectively transferred (by rigged court actions) into the hands of loyalists of President Serzh Sargsian.
The significantly flawed February 2008 presidential election and violent break-up of ensuing protests that resulted in 10 deaths continued to fuel a political crisis that remained largely unresolved during 2009 and resulted in numerous human rights abuses.
In accordance with changes made to the constitution in 2005, on 31 May 2009 the country conducted its first election of the Yerevan City Council (65 members) and the first, albeit indirect, election of the mayor of Yerevan (since independence in 1991, the president of the republic had appointed the mayors of the capital). Six parties and one bloc contested the proportional representation-based election on May 31, including the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), the ruling coalition partner Prosperous Armenia (PA), the ruling coalition partner Rule of Law (OY), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnakstutiun, the ANC bloc, the People's Party, and the Socialistic Labor Party of Armenia.
The conduct of the election was significantly flawed. Problems included favorable treatment of the ruling coalition parties and candidates; unbalanced election commissions in favor of ruling parties; instances of ballot stuffing; reports of vote buying; attempts to bribe observers; busing into Yerevan of non-Yerevan residents to vote; voter intimidation; violence against and intimidation of reporters, observers, and opposition proxies; restriction of individual civil and political rights; management of the work at polling stations by unauthorized individuals or candidates' proxies; cases of open and multiple voting; and suspiciously high turnout figures in some polling stations.
On 06 June 2009, the CEC officially reported the final results of the election, with 35 seats on the new city council going to the ruling RPA, 17 to its ruling coalition partner Prosperous Armenia, and 13 going to the ANC led by former president Levon Ter-Petrossian. Two CEC members representing the opposition Heritage and Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (ARF) parties refused to sign the CEC's final election protocol. On June 8, the RPA's Gagik Beglarian was officially reinstalled as Yerevan's mayor. On June 1, the ANC said it would boycott the city council after what Ter-Petrossian called "the ugliest election in Armenia's history." The opposition Heritage party, which did not contest the election, largely shared ANC's assessment and described the election as "disgraceful." The ARF also described the election as flawed and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the official results, noting that such elections risked becoming "a mere procedure for reproducing the authorities."
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