Karabakh Leader Fends Off Challenge
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Publication Date||27 July 2012|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Karabakh Leader Fends Off Challenge, 27 July 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/501788b62.html [accessed 13 July 2014]|
Nagorny Karabakh's incumbent president Bako Sahakyan may have won an easy victory in the July 19 election, but analysts say a new opposition movement is likely to form around his defeated opponent, and could emerge as a force to be reckoned with.
Although Sahakyan won 67 per cent of the vote, his main challenger Vitaly Balasanyan got a respectable 32.5 per cent – the highest score any opposition candidate has scored in a presidential election.
Sahakyan got 85 per cent when he was first elected in 2007, repeating the pattern of previous elections in which the incumbent was either reelected or passed the mantle on to a favoured successor.
Nagorny Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan during the Soviet era but has been ruled by an Armenian administration since the war of the early 1990s. A ceasefire in 1994 effectively froze the conflict, but no peace agreement has been signed. Protracted negotiations have failed to produce an agreement on Karabakh's future status that all sides can sign up to.
Addressing Karabakh's residents after the election, Sahakyan promised to improve the standard of living – high on the list of voters' concerns, as IWPR found in an earlier report – as well as to strengthen the armed forces and bolster the "trinity" of Karabakh, Armenia, and the large Armenian diaspora worldwide.
His team appeared unconcerned about the fall in his vote compared with the 2007 result.
"A great deal has been achieved over the past five years…. There have been mistakes, and there will be more – that is normal. President Sahakyan has never denied that there were mistakes," his spokesman Davit Babayan said. "But steps will be taken to resolve outstanding issues."
Balasanyan accepted defeat, but said the election was unfair. He has yet to congratulate his opponent.
"The presidential election in Nagorny Karabakh has shown that there are going to be some serious changes in this country, and the whole political atmosphere will alter," Alexander Iskandaryan, a political analyst and director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, the capital of neighbouring Armenia, said at a press conference on July 20. "There's the impression an opposition force is likely to form in Karabakh. And it will be hard for the authorities not to reckon with it."
Iskandaryan said Balasanyan's sizeable electorate was likely to throw its weight behind this new opposition.
Balasanyan appeared to confirm this in his post-election remarks, saying he would continue his political activities, given that at least a third of Karabakh's voting-age population was unhappy with the current government and wanted changes.
"It has been decided that there are to be two political forces, and that we will achieve those changes though various forms of political struggle," he said.
Political opposition in Karabakh has traditionally been weak, and largely confined to individuals contesting seats in elections. Sahakyan had the backing of all three parliamentary parties – Free Homeland, the Democratic Party of Artsakh and Dashnaktsutyun – as well as the unelected Communists.
Karen Ohanjanyan, a civil society leader and head of the Social Justice Party, is convinced that this election signals a change, and that stronger opposition will emerge.
"This political force will unite all healthy forces in Karabakh society, and seek a change of government through legal means [by] getting elected and… moving swiftly to create a healthier social and political climate," he said. "The current authorities have devaluated the concept of elected government."
Presidential spokesman Davit Babayan said the ruling team would take opposition criticism on board as long as it was constructive.
"If your opponent has a constructive point of view, then collaboration with him becomes possible and necessary. It all depends on the level of constructiveness," he said.
Meanwhile, Balasanyan's campaign chief Eduard Aghabekyan has filed a complaint on alleged procedural violations with Karabakh's Central Electoral Committee.
"The incumbent president and his team were unable to conduct a fair election. The polls were free, but not fair," Balasanyan said in a Facebook posting – a medium he made much use of during his campaign. "Throughout the campaign period, and on election day, people were put under pressure, and [state] administrative resources were entirely dedicated to collecting votes for the incumbent."
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe did not send election observers to Karabakh, given that the state's sovereignty claim remains unrecognised. The Netherlands-based International Expert Centre for Electoral Systems did send monitors, who found that the polls and the count were in line with international standards and constituted a free expression of the popular will. Observers from Russia were also positive about the process.
Others, however, found fault with the conduct of the elections. After noting positive features, the European Friends of Armenia group said its monitors visited polling stations where extraneous people were present, and where ballot boxes were not sealed and marked in a consistent manner.
The Karabakh-open.info website carried news of alleged violations, including a report of an assault on Balasanyan's agent in the village of Astghashen of Askeran region. This formed part of the complaint the candidate's team submitted to election officials.
Raya Nazaryan, secretary of the Central Electoral Committee, told IWPR that the alleged assault had looked into and the matter referred to the police for possible action.