In February and March 2003, Armenia held its fourth presidential election since independence. According to the official results, President Robert Kocharian won re-election in two rounds, defeating challenger Stepan Demirchian 67.4 percent to 33.5 percent.
Despite the official tallies, Kocharian’s re-election was difficult. He failed to win over 50 percent of the vote in the February 19th first round, necessitating a runoff with Demirchian—the first time a sitting president in the Caucasus has been forced to a second round.
The opposition organized large anti-Kocharian demonstrations in Yerevan before the first round. Some opposition leaders made threatening statements, warning, for example, of violence if Kocharian tried to rig the vote.
Considering the opposition’s inability to rally around one candidate, Armenia’s record of poor elections and Kocharian’s hold on the state apparatus, his failure to win a first round victory was surprising. His agreement to participate in a runoff may have been a concession to widespread opposition sentiment and concern that claims of outright victory in an increasingly tense, polarized atmosphere might have led to major confrontations.
Nevertheless, the authorities did not flinch during the second round. In the interim, some 200 opposition supporters were detained for participating in demonstrations. About 80 of them received prison terms, often in closed hearings without benefit of counsel.
OSCE observers concluded that both rounds failed to meet international standards. State media displayed egregious favoritism towards the incumbent, on whose behalf state resources were used lavishly. Ballot stuffing, especially during the second round vote count, was rampant. The most positive feature of the elections was an unprecedented, live, televised debate between Kocharian and Demirchian before the second round.
The election has cast a cloud on Kocharian’s legitimacy and deeply strained government-opposition relations. Armenia’s failure to hold a fair election has entrenched a pattern of vote fraud and has worrisome implications for the country’s democratization, as illustrated by the judgement of Kocharian’s powerful Defense Minister and campaign manager, Serzh Sarkissian: “People who have grown up and lived in Europe cannot understand our mentality. They have their rules and views on democracy, and we have ours.”
Armenia’s Constitutional Court refused to annul Kocharian’s victory, but did cast doubt on his legitimacy by recommending a vote of confidence in the president. It was the first time a constitutional court in the former USSR did not routinely affirm official election results.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was quick to congratulate Kocharian. Washington, however, echoed the OSCE/ODIHR view of the election. President Bush’s letter to Kocharian, sent after significant delay, did not contain the word “congratulations.”
A statement of the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE on May 29 expressed solidarity with the ODIHR assessment of Armenia’s parliamentary election: “The markedly mixed assessment of [the] elections is particularly disappointing considering the great progress Armenia has otherwise made over the past 11 years in building a modern society of which its people and government can be justly proud.” The United States called on Armenia to launch “swift action on the [ODIHR’s] recommendations” for electoral reform as “the best reaffirmation of the commitments that Armenia has made to the basic principles of democracy and fundamental human rights that OSCE represents.”