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Armenia: Parliamentary Vote Sets Scene For 2008 Presidential Race

Opposition supporters during a campaign rally in Yerevan (AFP) May 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Armenians go to the polls on May 12 to vote in hotly contested parliamentary elections.

The outcome is likely to dictate the course of the country's presidential vote in 2008, and the West has pressed for tomorrow's vote to be free and fair.

But with the Armenian opposition divided and Russia strongly supporting the current regime, a change of power in Yerevan looks unlikely.

On May 9, a crowd of antigovernment protestors gathered in Yerevan and said if there was even a hint of fraud in the parliamentary vote, they would take to the streets in massive numbers.

Activist Nikol Pashinian told the crowd that the protest -- which organizers said swelled as high as 15,000 people -- was a sign that the importance of the opposition was growing.

"Victory does not come at once. Victory comes step by step. And today we took an important step toward victory," Pashinian.

International Monitoring

The international community has made it clear that is wants to see an improvement over Armenia's last parliamentary elections, in 2003, when there were widespread allegations of voter fraud.

More than 400 electoral observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will be in the country to visit polling stations. Observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Council of Europe will also be present.

"Victory does not come at once. Victory comes step by step."

Harri Kamarainen, the head of the Caucasus Department at the OSCE's Conflict Prevention Center, says it is time for Armenia to show for the first time since independence that it can hold a clean vote.

"We have to accept the fact that big changes don't take place overnight and each country has their traditions. But we wish to see a clear improvement, and now Armenia should really demonstrate to the international community that they are able to conduct democratic and free and fair elections," Kamarainen said.

The vote is not just a legislative election, but also a dress rehearsal for Armenia's presidential election next year.

Presidential Vote

President Robert Kocharian is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. Many observers say Kocharian and the Armenian ruling elite are trying to use the parliamentary elections to ensure that Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who is Kocharian's close friend and political ally, wins the presidency in 2008.

Aram Abraman, a political analyst and editor in chief of the daily "Aravot," expects the party of power, the Republican Party, to win with a large majority, but with the assistance of falsification.

Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian could run for president in 2008 (AFP)

"After this, their [the Republican Party's] leader, the current Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian will have the possibility to run for president. And in that election he will also win by a large margin," Abraman says.

Sarkisian's ruling Republican Party enjoys a wide lead in public opinion polls. He also has the strong support of Russia, which has traditionally held a lot of influence over Armenian politics.

Sarkisian, Kocharian, and other high-ranking officials say every effort will be made to ensure the vote conforms to European standards of fairness.

Western skepticism about clean conduct of the vote has raised hackles in Yerevan and Moscow, which supports the current Armenian regime.

The Kremlin says it is raising the number of CIS election observers traveling to Yerevan in an effort to counter what it considers to be bias among Western observers.


The closest competitor to Sarkisian's Republican Party is another pro-government party called Prosperous Armenia.

Gagik Tsarukian, a wealthy tycoon and former world arm-wrestling champion, formed the party with Kocharian's blessing last year. Critics allege that the move was a ploy to siphon votes away from the opposition while maintaining an image of plurality.

Prosperous Armenia has since been climbing steadily in the polls. Its popularity may be tied to media reports that Tsarukian's party is offering Armenians cash payments in exchange for agreeing to vote for the party.

Armenia's opposition, meanwhile, has failed to unite around a single antigovernment party or platform. As a result, several opposition groups are all in competition for a shrinking pool of voters.

"Aravot" editor Abraman says the opposition also lacks a single leader -- like Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili or Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko -- that can rally the masses.

According to opinion polls, the strongest opposition party is Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State), led by former Parliamentary speaker Artur Baghdasarian.

The opposition Heritage Party, led by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, also has a chance to win seats in parliament.

Campaign Criticism

Opposition leaders have complained that they have not had fair access to the media and that news coverage has been biased in favor of pro-government parties.

Opposition leaders also accuse the government of using dirty tricks and intimidation during the campaign.

Authorities on May 8 arrested former Foreign Minister and current opposition activist Aleksandr Arzumanian for alleged money laundering. The opposition says the arrest was politically motivated.

Given this environment, Abraman says ironically he expects Saturday's vote to be marked by massive fraud, Western protests -- and little else.

"Of course there will be declarations. The U.S. State Department, the Council of Europe, the European Union will announce that there was flagrant falsification, but that they hope the Armenian government will take steps to ensure that those responsible will be punished and that in 2008 the election will be more fair," Abraman says.

"And then in 2008 they will say that they hope that those falsifiers [in the presidential vote] will be punished, and that in 2012 or 2013 [when the next parliamentary vote will be held] the election will be fairer."

But the United States says $235 million in aid to Armenia under the Millennium Challenge Fund could be threatened if the election is deemed unfair. Likewise, the European Union says a fair election is necessary for Armenia to continue participating in its European Neighborhood Policy program.

As Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian puts it, if there is electoral fraud on May 12, the international community won't just say "shame on you" to Armenia.

This time, Oskanian says, there will be "negative economic consequences."

(RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed to this report.)



What's At Stake In Parliamentary Vote?

By Harry Tamrazian, director, RFE/RL's Armenian Service

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 Armenian 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." more