Will Armenia have free and fair elections? Ask that question anywhere from the streets of Yerevan to a remote country village and the answer will usually be "no."
There have been 10 national polls since Armenia gained independence. Of those, eight failed to meet international standards for a clean and democratic vote. The sole exceptions came early on -- a referendum on independence and the first presidential elections, both in 1991.
Since then, vote-rigging, ballot-stuffing, and forged signatures have all become well-documented tactics in Armenia's electoral process. This year, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has already voiced concern about the election campaign, prompted by reliable reports of voter intimidation and bribery by pro-government party activists.
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian says a repeat of serious irregularities would be a "big blow" to Armenia's reputation -- one with more than just "moral" consequences.
The official mind-set in Yerevan seems to be that it's not only that the parties of power must win. The opposition must also lose. Opposition figures like Artur Baghdasarian and former Armenian Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian have in recent weeks been attacked for alleged treason or arrested on dubious charges. And the price tag for television advertising is unreasonably steep -- $300 a minute, a price that leaves many alternative voices off the air.
Perhaps the real question about the parliamentary elections is not who will win, or whether the vote will be fair, but why this vote matters.
In its 15 years of post-Soviet history, Armenian presidents have hired and fired nine out of the country's 11 prime ministers. After these elections, however, prime ministers will no longer be easy prey for the president.
The May 12 ballot will usher in a parliament with broader powers than the current one. According to Armenia's newly amended constitution, the next generation of lawmakers will have far greater control in appointing the head of the government. Whoever comprises the ruling majority will be able to effectively block any presidential nominee for the prime ministerial post.
To wit, whoever wins the parliamentary elections will be able to appoint a prime minister and use the administrative resources of incumbency to launch a successful bid for the next presidential elections, due to take place in early 2008.
That's why it's significant -- barring a surprise result that could only come with a truly clean election -- that the likely winner of the May 12 vote is the ruling Republican Party, led by the second-most powerful man in Armenia, Prime Minister (and former Defense Minister) Serzh Sarkisian.
Sarkisian has been a close associate of the current president, Robert Kocharian, for more than 20 years, and is generally expected to step up to the plate when Kocharian's second term expires next year.
Kocharian, for his part, has announced he does not intend to be the youngest retiree in Armenia. (He is a relatively young 53.) His dilemma is much the same as the one facing Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is also nearing the end of his constitutionally mandated second term -- how does a former president maintain a major role in politics?
In Kocharian's case, it may be by stepping comfortably into the prime ministerial post. Many local observers believe this explains Kocharian's keen interest in the May 12 vote and his evident desire to build a power base in the new, more muscular legislature.
(The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.)