By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Hrant Aleksanian in Stepanakert
Political groups loyal to Nagorno-Karabakh President Arkady Ghukasian swept to a surprise landslide victory in a weekend parliamentary election which was praised by international observers but denounced by the local opposition.
Preliminary results released by Karabakh’s Central Election Commission (CEC) on Monday showed Ghukasian’s Democratic Party of Artsakh (AZhK) winning 12 out of the 33 seats in the unrecognized republic’s legislature. The Azat Hayrenik (Free Fatherland) party, an obscure pro-establishment group, finished second with 10 seats.
The CEC said eight other seats were won by individual candidates not affiliated with any party. Most of them are also thought to be loyal to Ghukasian. The CEC put the voter turnout at 78 percent.
The official figures gave the main opposition bloc uniting the local branch of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and the Movement-88 party only three seats. All of them were won on the party list basis that covered one third of the parliament seats. The 22 other seats were contested under the first-past-the-post system.
Some local observers regarded the Dashnaktsutyun/Movement-88 bloc as a front-runner during the election campaign, making its poor showing particularly humiliating. Dashnaktsutyun alone had nine deputies in the previous legislature and all of them were elected from single-mandate constituencies.
The bloc’s leaders were quick to reject the official results as fraudulent and indicate that they will boycott the new National Assembly. But they made it clear that they will not stage street protests to have the vote annulled, citing the need to “maintain stability” in the Armenian-populated disputed territory which remains technically at war with Azerbaijan.
“We will not step on the path of upheavals,” Armen Sargsian, a local Dashnaktsutyun leader, told reporters. “But that doesn’t mean we will not fight against injustice and defend our rights.”
Another opposition leader, Gegham Baghdasarian, said the fact that the bloc failed to secure a single individual seat alone “raises suspicions.” “In my opinion there have only been free and transparent irregularities,” he charged.
But opposition leaders declined to specify the alleged irregularities, saying that they will issue a detailed statement in the coming days.
The Ghukasian administration’s conduct of the vote was largely praised by over 120 Western monitors representing international non-governmental organizations. "This was a transparent election," said Paul Williams of the U.S.-based Public International Law and Policy Group.
“The voting procedures were properly conducted and we had no complaints about the actual conduct of the election proceedings from either ordinary voters who we spoke to or from proxies or members of election commissions or observers in the polling stations,” agreed Mark Almond of the British Helsinki Group.
Significantly, the poll was also endorsed by representatives of Armenia’s largest opposition group, the Artarutyun (Justice) alliance. “It would be great to have such transparent elections in the Republic of Armenia,” Arshak Sadoyan, head of Artarutyun’s election monitoring team, told a news conference in Stepanakert.
Earlier expectations of an opposition victory in Karabakh were fuelled by the fact that Movement-88 is led by Eduard Aghabekian, the mayor of the capital Stepanakert who is in opposition to Ghukasian. Aghabekian was elected mayor last August, unexpectedly defeating a Ghukasian-backed candidate.
Political tension in Karabakh rose on the eve of Sunday’s vote when Dashnaktsutyun/Movement-88 issued a strongly-worded statement accusing Ghukasian and his party of using their government levers to intimidate and bribe voters. The opposition claimed that the authorities are using their “material wealth accumulated by illegal means.”
Ghukasian denied the charges and accused his opponents of trying to “slander” his government with “unacceptable methods.” He claimed that he has avoided any personal involvement in the election campaign.
Dashnaktsutyun, which is represented in Armenia’s government, was allied with Ghukasian until last December’s unexpected sacking of the Karabakh government’s sole minister affiliated with the pan-Armenian nationalist party. Its Karabakh-based leaders claimed at the time that Ghukasian fears losing the parliamentary election.
The opposition rhetoric was criticized by Arayik Harutiunian, a wealthy businessman who leads Azat Hayrenik, the official runner-up. “They criticized the authorities without suggesting any solutions,” he told RFE/RL.
Although Harutiunian said his party is “not fully with the government,” he is likely to be largely loyal to the Karabakh leadership. Analysts note the fact that his main business partner is a Yerevan-based entrepreneur close to Armenia’s Karabakh-born Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. The party’s declared agenda is largely economic.
Ghukasian could face more serious challenges from several newly elected deputies that are believed to be close to his most formidable foe, former Defense Minister Samvel Babayan. Among them is Babayan’s former deputy and most trusted lieutenant, Armen Abgarian.
Babayan, Karabakh’s most powerful man until 2000, was released last September after spending more than four years in jail on charges of plotting to assassinate Ghukasian. He has since lived and kept a low profile in Yerevan.
Meanwhile, the government of Armenia welcomed on Monday the Karabakh election, saying that it will further reinforce the disputed region’s de facto independence from Azerbaijan. “We believe that is an important step toward reinforcing democratic institutions and traditions in Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian.
Predictably, reaction from Azerbaijan was diametrically opposite. "Armenia is eager to legalize the occupation," Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission charged in a written statement on Saturday cited by AFP. "Elections and referendums on the occupied territories must be conducted only after the territory's restoration to Azerbaijan," it said.
Turkey, Azerbaijan’s staunchest ally, echoed the condemnation. "Turkey believes that such unilateral initiatives... will not help efforts for a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem and considers those elections as illegitimate," said a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Ankara.
The elections were contested by seven parties and 185 individual candidates. The new Karabakh parliament will serve for a five-year term.