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Armenia

Armenia's Strange Presidential Campaign Rolls To A Close

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian (left) addresses an election campaign rally in Ararat on February 4. The election is widely seen as Sarkisian's to lose.
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian (left) addresses an election campaign rally in Ararat on February 4. The election is widely seen as Sarkisian's to lose.
By Ruzanna Stepanian and Satenik Vantsian
YEREVAN/GYUMRI, Armenia -- A presidential candidate on a four-week hunger strike. Another candidate who declares he will not accept the election results -- even if he wins. A murky apparent assassination attempt. Up to one-third of eligible voters legally barred from casting ballots because they are out of the country.

You might think this would be more than enough to make a presidential election exciting. But if you are talking about the February 18 vote in Armenia, you'd be mistaken.

Despite facing a slate of six challengers, incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian, according to all polls, seems set to cruise to a second term. Surveys show him winning about 70 percent of the vote, more than 25 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival.

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But what the campaign has lacked in suspense it has more than made up for in strangeness.

For instance, candidate Andrias Ghukasian, the 42-year-old owner of a Yerevan radio station, has been on a hunger strike since the campaign began. He is calling for Sarkisian's candidacy to be annulled and for international observers to boycott the vote. In a sense, he is running against the election itself.

Likewise, 49-year-old Arman Melikian, a former official in the government of the de facto independent Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh, has denounced the election in advance as "illegitimate."

"I will not accept the official results," he told RFE/RL's Armenian Service. "Yes, even if I win," he added.

Candidate Paruyr Hairikian lies in a Yerevan hospital on February 1 after he was shot and wounded.
Candidate Paruyr Hairikian lies in a Yerevan hospital on February 1 after he was shot and wounded.

And then there is the story of Paruyr Hairikian, the 63-year-old head of the Self-Determination Party. He was shot and wounded outside his home on January 31.

After considerable flip-flopping, he decided on February 10 to ask the Constitutional Court to delay the election for two weeks. But the next day he withdrew his request, saying that he couldn't bear the thought of prolonging Ghukasian's hunger strike.

Meanwhile, Armenia security forces have arrested two men who reportedly confessed to shooting Hairikian. And presidential candidate Vartan Sedrakian, a political neophyte who describes himself as an expert in Armenian epic poetry, says he fears he will be arrested because he knew the two suspects and that they had even been hired to distribute his campaign literature.

Empty Rhetoric

There are serious issues facing this South Caucasus country: navigating between Russia and the West, tensions with neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a faltering economy that is dominated by oligarchs and increasingly dependent on remittances sent from abroad, among others.

But such matters have rarely made it into the campaign, which began on January 21 and has not featured any direct debates among the contenders. Instead, it has been a campaign of rhetoric and gestures.

One exchange between the U.S.-born former foreign minister, Raffi Hovannisian, who is Sarkisian's closest rival, and the incumbent was typical.

Speaking at a rally in Armenia's second-largest city, Gyumri, on February 10, Hovannisian presented the choice facing voters in Manichean, albeit vague, terms: "This is not a struggle between Raffi and Serzh. This is not a battle between our political parties. It is a struggle for good, and good will win in the end."

This prompted Sarkisian to respond at a rally in Yerevan the next day: "Yesterday, one of the candidates stated the upcoming election was going to be a choice between good and evil. All the candidates had, until that moment, been more or less tactful. So have they again begun dividing the nation into us and them, into good and evil? When will they realize the country is sick and tired of such divisions?"

A Referendum On Sarkisian

The field of candidates was weakened from the start after some heavyweights decided not to run. Sixty-eight-year-old former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who finished second to Sarkisian in 2008, stepped aside in December, citing his age as the main reason. His Armenian National Congress is boycotting the election.

Earlier, millionaire Gagik Tsarukian of the Prosperous Armenia Party, the country's second-largest, also said he would not run. Prosperous Armenia cooperated with Sarkisian's government in his first term and performed poorly in the May 2012 legislative elections. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation also decided to sit out this election, despite fielding candidates in all of Armenia's previous presidential ballots.

Pictures of opposition supporters killed in Yerevan in March 2008 are placed at the site of the deadly postelection unrest in March 2012. Opposition parties will watch for a clean vote.
Pictures of opposition supporters killed in Yerevan in March 2008 are placed at the site of the deadly postelection unrest in March 2012. Opposition parties will watch for a clean vote.

Despite praise from monitors who generally say the campaign environment this time has been better than in previous elections, opposition figures accuse Sarkisian's Republican Party of using "administrative resources" to support the president. In an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service in January, Sarkisian said it was not the government's fault that the opposition is weak and rejected charges of an uneven playing field.

"Of course, it is very difficult for them because members of the Republican Party today are leaders in more than 70 percent of local government bodies across Armenia. And no matter how much they say that this is due to the use of government resources, I can never agree with that," Sarkisian said.

"People there waged a political struggle and got into leadership positions. And why shouldn’t they use their leadership -- I mean, their prestige -- for their political party or for ensuring the victory of their party's leader?"

Will Anyone Vote?

In addition, opposition activists have criticized a change to the Electoral Code that severely restricted voting from abroad, meaning that up to 1 million Armenian citizens currently living or traveling outside the country will be unable to vote. The government says that change was made because of the high cost of arranging out-of-country voting, while the opposition charges it was done because voters abroad historically cast ballots overwhelmingly for opposition candidates.

Although the election is not competitive, Sarkisian is under pressure to preside over a relatively clean vote. He came to the presidency following a 2008 campaign that the opposition alleged was flawed. In the weeks between the election and his inauguration, opposition protests were violently put down by the authorities and a state of emergency was declared.

In many ways Sarkisian's first term has been devoted to establishing his legitimacy, a process that he hopes will be completed with the February 18 ballot.

But Armenians in general are following the election-season antics with a mixture of indifference and cynicism. One pensioner in Gyumri told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that he wasn't sure whether he'll vote or not.

"There have been a lot of promises. But unfortunately they have never been kept," he said.

Written by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting from RFE/RL's Armenian Service correspondents Ruzanna Stepanian in Yerevan and Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri. Naira Bulghadaryan of RFE/RL's Armenian Service also contributed to this report from Yerevan
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Comments
     
by: azer from: Azerbaijan
February 16, 2013 00:03
I am not surprised that no Armenians have commented here. In reality this should one of the hot topics for them to comment on. However, you can find them commenting on all relevant and irrelevant topics on Azerbaijan under English French and American names. That shows that their only focus is on how to gush bigoted and hateful speech on Azeris and Azerbaijan.

by: KG from: Diaspora
February 16, 2013 07:44
How can the poll show serge winning around 70 percent of the vote, with the closest competitor 25 percent behind him.... That means serge has 70 percent, and the closest competitor has 45 percent....correct me if I'm wrong but polls are usually supposed to add up to 100 percent give or take margin of error...

by: Ben
February 16, 2013 09:53
The country of the vibrant democracy.

by: Hayastanci from: Republic of Armenia
February 16, 2013 23:32
<a href="http://ekav.info/stop-fake-2013-presidential-elections-republic-Armenia.html">http://ekav.info/stop-fake-2013-presidential-elections-republic-Armenia.html</a>
The announced by the criminal karabakh regime presidential elections 2013 in our Republic of Armenia is not legitimate, because at least two registered candidates (serzh sargsyan, the serzhik and raffi hovannisian, the miserable) born not in our Republic of Armenia, i.e. they are not hayastancies ! We call hayastancies do not participate in this illegal act, in this fake elections and also call our citizens to not visit the polling stations on the 18th of February even with the purpose to damage their voting tickets, so that our boycott were visually obvious !
<a href="http://ekav.info/stop-fake-2013-presidential-elections-republic-Armenia.html">http://ekav.info/stop-fake-2013-presidential-elections-republic-Armenia.html</a>

by: Alex from: LA
February 17, 2013 03:37
If you give a chance for some Armenian to come off the Valentine's Day high, from spending a lot of money at Tiffany & Co., Burberry, LV and other stores, then to have time to read this article that pretty much regurgitates the same thing all the Armenian news outlets have been saying for months now, you might seen a comment or two from Armenian's that read this oil and gas for an article site...
(sorry for the run-on sentence, I'm hungover today from spending money at Turkish restaurant, how many Turks or Azeri's go to Armenian ones??)

by: Xosrov Abasov from: world
February 19, 2013 14:27
The partially free Armenian electoral process demonstrates that the ruling elites in Armenia may disagree on many issues but not Armenia’s continuing occupation of Karabakh and its strategic alliance with Russia. The presidential campaign demonstrates that no socio-political force in the country would dare put forward a compromise formula to resolve the outstanding conflict in Karabakh or re-evaluate Armenia’s unquestionable subordination to Russia.

The presence of a powerful Armenian lobby in France and the US is allowing Armenia to calm Western irritation of strong Russian presence in Armenia. As nationalism remains the guiding dogma of Armenia’s key socio-political forces, it is highly unlikely that Russian influence in Armenia would subside anytime soon. The Armenian ruling caste realizes that throughout history the Armenian nationalist project never succeeded without Russian support. The electoral process in Armenia demonstrates that the strategic status quo is to be maintained, unless the pro-Armenian regime of Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan is replaced by a representative government that would discontinue the current imitation of the liberation process of Karabakh and launch an authentic course to resolve the issue of its occupation.

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