Growing up in Lebanon, I remember football (soccer) tournaments were events of magnified importance. Teams were divided along confessional and political lines and, naturally, so were the fans.
I recall the stories my father and older brother would tell when they returned from a game. Depending on whether Homenetmen had won or lost, they would talk about the chants and slogans, describe how this or that player had scored a goal, how luck was simply not on our side that day, or how the referees were completely unreasonable and unfair in their rulings.
Teams went to great lengths to ensure victory. Bribing referees and fixing matches were regular occurrences for several local teams that could afford it—a phenomenon we refused to participate in. For the community, though, it did not matter. Whether we were strong enough to take on the opponent or not, whether we could expect a game to be fixed or not, our fans showed up in large numbers with their flags and chants to support their team. It was not just about sports. The games were about the community’s thirst for acknowledgement, for winning. It was one way to channel the political aspirations and frustrations of a community formed on the ashes of genocide and deprived of a homeland. And so rain, hail, or shine they showed up.
So did our compatriots in Armenia on the day of the country’s sixth presidential elections. They showed up to express their aspirations for a better future; they showed up for a chance to win against all odds.
With three major opposition forces not participating, the non-competitiveness of the election seemed to dominate public discourse, or at least media discourse, in the pre-electoral phase. The results were going to be fixed—and they were. People were going to be bribed, pressured, intimidated—and many were. Not many people were going to show up, because it was all a sham—but many did. It was meaningless to participate—but the aftermath has shown it certainly wasn’t. In retrospect, those who held these views—myself included, but, more importantly, several prominent opposition forces—were right about many things. But I am thankful we were wrong about what counts most—the will of the people.
Election day is over but the struggle for fair and just elections is not. We may never know the exact proportion of votes Raffi Hovannisian and Serge Sarkisian received, but our people are still showing up, this time at Freedom Square, to defend their democratic right to vote, to defend their choice. I don’t know where the future will lead us, and if, when, or how the gatherings at Freedom Square will come to an end this time around. How the coming days pan out will depend on many things, including the decisions and actions of Hovannisian, the authorities, and other political forces in Armenia.
In these uncertain times, however, one thing is certain: This struggle is not about Hovannisian gaining power. It is not about the Heritage Party or the Republican Party, the ARF, the Armenian National Congress, or Prosperous Armenia. This sentiment was reiterated by Hovannisian himself during one of his speeches at Freedom Square. This struggle is about freedom, self-determination, nation-building, and democratization. It is the struggle for a better future—a strong Armenia where the will of the people is respected, not oppressed. For this reason, it must be a united struggle.
Yet again, Armenia is at a crossroads. All political forces in Armenia have a choice to make. Those who see themselves defending the freedom of the people and democratic principles must play their role in this struggle. This is particularly true for the main opposition parties. Members of the Armenian National Congress—which remains embroiled in an internal struggle—have attended the gatherings at Freedom Square. Prosperous Armenia remains silent. The ARF has announced it stands by the people. More concrete actions are needed, however. Having sat out the elections out of lack of faith in the process, these parties now have an opportunity to re-evaluate their policies and to take part in carving out a different future for our country. Otherwise they may risk marginalizing themselves.
The people of Armenia have spoken. They have spoken against five more years of corruption, emigration, social inequality, economic deprivation, human rights violations, and irresponsible foreign policies. We can’t afford five more years of suppressing the will of the people. Enough. Freedom Square is calling.