Now, as then, policy differences between the various parties are largely irrelevant, with the main issue being whether the vote itself will prove free and fair. But in contrast to 2003, far more depends this time around on both the conduct and the outcome of the vote.
Continued receipt of funds under the U.S. Millennium Challenge program and medium-term cooperation with the EU are both contingent on the voting being perceived as free and fair. In addition, the political landscape has changed in recent years, reflecting the emergence of powerful new players, the shift of one former influential politician to the opposition, and the opposition's seeming inability to close ranks.
Finally, the outcome of the ballot -- specifically which party gains a majority in the new legislature and who becomes prime minister -- will to a large extent shape the outcome of the presidential ballot in early 2008, in which incumbent President Robert Kocharian is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term.
For months, opposition politicians have been predicting that, like earlier ballots, the May 12 election will be criticized by international monitors as not meeting generally accepted standards for a free, fair, and democratic vote.
Two factors have served to fuel those misgivings. The first is the spectacular rise in popularity of a new party, Bargavach Hayastan (BH, Prosperous Armenia) formed just over one year ago by Gagik Tsarukian, a wealthy businessman with close personal ties to Kocharian.
BH claims to have signed up 370,000 members, which is tantamount to over 10 percent of the country's total 3.22 million population. Its critics allege that its success is largely the result of the charitable activities undertaken by an eponymous foundation also headed by Tsarukian. A poll of 1,200 respondents conducted by the Armenian Sociological Association in November 2006 found that Tsarukian was by far the most popular person in Armenia.
The second is President Kocharian's listing during a December 15 television interview of those parties that he believes will dominate the next parliament; namely the HHK, BH (on the basis of what he termed its "simple and understandable slogans"), and the HHK's two current coalition partners, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) and the United Labor Party (MAK) headed by businessman Gurgen Arsenian.
President Kocharian affirmed in his televised New Year's address to the nation that "I am sure that [the elections] will be up to the mark," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on January 3. "Free and fair elections should be a priority for each of us," he added. Defense Minister Sergzh Sarkisian for his part similarly pledged on February 4 that both he personally and the Armenian authorities as a whole will make every effort to ensure that the elections are democratic, fair, and transparent, regnum.ru reported.
But few opposition politicians place any trust in such assertions, and some even suspect that the international community does not consider it imperative that the election is fair.
Artur Baghdasarian, who quit as parliament speaker in May 2006 after a public disagreement with Kocharian over whether Armenia should aspire to NATO membership, described the election campaign in an editorial published last month in the "The Wall Street Journal" as "a crossroads," and argued that Armenia needs "a strong and legitimate government supported by the people" in order to implement the reforms on which political and economic progress is contingent.
He called on the international community to support the OSCE election monitoring mission and thus undercut "those abroad who might turn a blind eye" to vote-rigging in the name of preserving stability.
On March 5, Lieutenant General Manvel Grigorian, who heads Yerkrapah, the largest union of veterans of the Karabakh war, was even more outspoken, estimating the chances of election fraud as "100 percent," given that "there are lots of professionals around," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He vowed to "make every effort" to minimize falsification in those single-mandate constituencies where the Yerkrapah will field candidates.
The Armenian press is, moreover, replete with speculation about imputed agreements already reached within the upper echelons of the present leadership on the allocation of the proportional vote.
This time, a larger number of parliament mandates than ever before will be allocated under the proportional system: 90 of the total 131. By contrast, in 2003 the ratio was 75:56 and in 1999, the reverse, with 56 seats allocated under the proportional system and 75 in single-mandate constituencies.
"Hayk" predicted on February 9 that BH will "win" 38 percent of the vote, the HHK 31 percent, the HHD 9 percent, and the opposition 8 percent. (Kocharian is said to be disappointed already in Arsenian's MAK.)
That scenario reflects the widely held conviction that the main competition will be not between pro-government forces and the opposition, but between two pro-Kocharian groupings, Tsarukian's BH and the HHK, within which Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian is poised to eclipse Markarian as the most powerful figure. Most pundits anticipate that, should the HHK emerge as the election winner, Sarkisian would become prime minister, with Markarian given the post of parliament speaker.
Faced with the twin challenges posed by BH's capacity -- courtesy of Tsarukian's virtually unlimited financial resources -- to buy votes, and the imputed determination of the Armenian leadership to ensure victory for a party or parties loyal to the present leadership, the logical course of action would seem to have been for disparate opposition parties to subsume their differences and rivalries and align, if not in a united front, then in two or three blocs. (There is a precedent for doing so: several opposition parties aligned to back Manukian's presidential bid in September 1996.)
One major putative alliance would have brought together Stepan Demirchian's People's Party of Armenia (HZhK), Manukian's National Democratic Union (AZhM), the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party of U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, and the Hanrapetutiun (Republic) Party headed by another former premier, Aram Sargsian. (Earlier speculation that Sargsian would join forces with Artashes Geghamian's National Accord Party proved misplaced.)
Some in the opposition question whether the international community values free and fair elections more than stability.
However, on February 28 the leaders of those parties publicly admitted their failure to overcome their differences, without specifying the sticking points. Suren Sureniants of Hanrapetutiun told RFE/RL, without elaborating, on February 27 that the disagreements were not ideological, but tactical, while Sargsian implied to RFE/RL's Armenian Service the following day that he suspected some of his potential allies of colluding with the authorities.
Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir was said at one point to be considering an alliance with Dashink, which is headed by the former commander of the Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces, General Samvel Babayan, but those expectations too proved misplaced.
Moreover, not only did Armenia's most prominent opposition parties fail to cement a broad election alliance: the "tactical" differences that emerged between them dealt the coup de grace to the Artarutiun alliance of 12 opposition parties formed in the wake of the 2003 presidential elections, and which won 23 mandates in the parliamentary election later that same year.
The leaders of its constituent parties pronounced Artarutiun defunct on March 2, but again declined to offer any explanation, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. According to some media reports, the remaining parties objected to Demirchian's insistence that his HZhK should nominate at least half the candidates on the bloc's joint list and that the bloc back him as its sole candidate in the 2008 presidential ballot.
Consequently, a total of 27 separate political parties plus one bloc have formally announced their intention to compete for the 90 parliament mandates to be distributed under the proportional system.
The sole major party that did not do so is Manukian's AZhM. Manukian, who is 61, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview on March 5 that since "mechanisms for concealing vote falsification have become quite sophisticated," even a broad-based opposition alliance would have been hard-pressed to win a majority in the new parliament. In those circumstances, he continued, "being a deputy of this and the next parliament is neither honorable, nor does it make any sense." At the same time, he insisted that "we are not quitting politics," and he made clear that he intends to nominate his candidacy in next year's presidential ballot.
The one election bloc that will seek registration brings together two small parties sympathetic to former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, Democratic Homeland (headed by Petros Makeyan) and Mikael Hairapetian's Conservative Party.
The former Ayl@ntranq (Alternative) now goes by the English name Impeachment and seeks to impeach President Kocharian (on what grounds is unclear: according to Article 57 of the constitution, the president can be impeached only for "high treason" or unspecified "grave crimes.) Ayl@ntranq is reportedly attracting younger voters and defectors from both Zharangutiun and Manukian's AZhM.
The various party lists number 1,497 candidates, with the HHK and BH each naming 112 candidates, the HHD 117, Orinats Yerkir 131, the HZhK 69, and Zharangutiun 56. A total of 173 candidates have been nominated to contest the remaining 41 parliament mandates, Noyan Tapan reported on March 5.
Of the 131 outgoing parliament deputies, 80 percent have nominated themselves for the May 12 ballot either under the proportional or majoritarian system, or both, according to Noyan Tapan on March 7.