Armenians will go to the polls as scheduled on February 18 to elect a new president. Opposition candidate Paruyr Hairikian, 63, a Soviet-era dissident, retracted on February 11
the request he submitted one day earlier to the Constitutional Court to postpone the vote for two weeks to permit him to recuperate after being shot in the shoulder
outside his home on January 31.
The attack on Hairikian marked the lowest point of a presidential campaign blighted
by the decision of the two strongest potential opposition forces not to field candidates and the relentless focus by several candidates on the authorities' imputed determination to rig the outcome of the vote to secure Serzh Sarkisian's reelection for a second term. Ever since the campaign kicked off, opinion polls and the expert community alike have predicted a convincing victory for Sarkisian.
Hairikian has nonetheless argued consistently that if two of the three most serious candidates (himself, former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian, and U.S.-born former Foreign Minister and opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party Chairman Raffi Hovannisian) dropped out of the race, the third could defeat Sarkisian, garnering 67-69 percent of the vote. Hairikian proposed that option
in an open letter to his two rivals on February 9, arguing that a two-week postponement would give them the chance to align behind a single candidate.
Hovannisian did not respond publicly to that proposal while Bagratian, who had himself argued that the election should be postponed in light of the attack on Hairikian, called the latter's bluff. "If he is honest, he himself should withdraw his candidacy in favor of the future joint [opposition] candidate," Bagratian told a news conference
on February 11.
Bagratian went on to accuse Hairikian of cutting a secret deal with the Armenian authorities aimed at facilitating Sarkisian's reelection. The weekly "168 Zham" similarly claimed
that most Armenian observers tend to believe that hypothesis.
Whether Hairikian's apparent efforts to manipulate the attack on him to his advantage have indeed misfired will only become clear when the preliminary returns are made public on February 19. Meanwhile, a poll
conducted by the European Friends of Armenia in early February registered a more than 10 percent decline since January, from 68.6 percent to 58 percent, in the number of voters who said they would vote for Sarkisian and a similar increase, from 20.8 to 33 percent, in the number who plan to vote for Hovannisian. Hairikian's rating remained virtually unchanged (4.8 percent in January and 4.9 percent in February).
Sarkisian has pledged repeatedly that the election will be the most democratic ever held in Armenia. But on February 13 he unexpectedly raised the possibility
of malpractice on the part of unspecified forces that "for years did everything to turn Armenia into a dirty swamp, to keep everything unchanged under this sky for the sake of their parochial and personal interests...who for years disregarded your voice, stole your future, and did everything to ensure that others, rather than you, make a choice, that the elected leader is not yours.... Those who are used to buying everything they want to have. Those who are ready to steal what they can't buy."
Sarkisian did not elaborate and one can only speculate whether the revelation that his rating had fallen below 60 percent impelled him to create a plausible excuse that could be adduced should he need to explain why he failed to garner the 50 percent plus one vote required for a first-round victory. Alternatively, Sarkisian's scaremongering may have been intended simply to counter the repeated statements by his rivals that the absence of a level playing field divests the entire election process of any legitimacy. Citing that lack of legitimacy, one of the eight registered candidates, extraparliamentary National Accord party Chairman Aram Harutiunian, withdrew his candidacy
last week, as he had pledged to do at the start of the campaign.
The challengers' shared conviction that the authorities will illegally manipulate the outcome of the ballot was registered in the second interim report
released by the OSCE Election Observation Mission. That report noted that "all candidates except the incumbent have alleged voter-list deficiencies and misuse of administrative resources and have voiced concerns about the overall integrity of the electoral process." The OSCE mission also deplored the lack of televised debates between candidates: the opposition candidates declined to engage in such debates unless Sarkisian also agreed to participate.
Two men arrested last week have confessed to the attack on Hairikian, but their motives remain unclear. Similarly unclear are the extent and implications of their connection with another presidential candidate, Vartan Sedrakian. Sedrakian, who describes himself as an expert of myths and epic poetry, told a press conference on February 12 that one of the accused was among several laborers who remodeled his country house last year, while the other drove a taxi the construction workers used regularly. Sedrakian predicted
that once the election is over and the international monitors have left the country, the authorities will arrest him and accuse him of masterminding the attack.
Commenting on Sedrakian's possible involvement in the attack on Hairikian, Izabella Abgaryan, a member of the Zharangutyun parliamentary faction, described the election campaign
as having mutated from a comedy into a gangster film that in turn is becoming a horror movie.
Meanwhile, one pundit is already looking ahead: Karen Kocharian (no relation to Sarkisian's predecessor as president) observed
that February 19 will mark the start of infighting within Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia to determine the party's candidate in the 2018 presidential ballot, in which Sarkisian is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term.