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Armenia: Key Players Seek To Maximize Election Gains

By Liz Fuller and Richard Giragosian Sarkisian's Republican Party surpassed nearly all preelection estimates, giving the prime minister a strong legislative mandate and a sound platform for a likely presidential candidacy (NATO) May 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The May 12 Armenian parliamentary elections resulted in a victory for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and the eclipse of two opposition parties represented in the outgoing parliament. But the division of mandates raises questions about the composition of a new coalition government, which may hinge on the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, a junior coalition partner since 2003.

The May 12 vote was hailed by international election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as a "clear improvement" demonstrating "progress" compared with earlier ballots, and as largely meeting international standards for democratic elections. That evaluation both conveys a heightened degree of legitimacy on the new legislature and suggests a break with Armenia's dubious legacy of tainted elections.

The election results largely confirmed general expectations, with Prime Minister Sarkisian's HHK the overall winner, followed by the new Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia, BH) party and the HHD. Yet the election was not without some surprises. First, the scale of the HHK victory surpassed nearly all preelection estimates, while votes for Prosperous Armenia were surprisingly fewer than expected. The HHK garnered nearly one-third of the party-list vote, which together with the seats it won in single-mandate constituencies will ensure it 64 or 65 seats in the new 131-seat parliament, endowing the party with an outright majority. Bolstered by its strong position, the HHK now offers Prime Minister Sarkisian both a firm platform for dominating the legislative agenda of the new parliament and a strong position for his candidacy in the February 2008 presidential election.

Prosperous, But Popular?

Coming in a distant second, Prosperous Armenia polled a mere 14.7 percent of the vote, less than half that cast for the HHK, and which will translate into 25 or 26 parliamentary seats. That modest showing surprised many, as the party steadily acquired political standing and seeming popularity in the preelection period thanks primarily to the mass-scale distribution of "charity" and "benevolent aid" throughout the rural areas of Armenia by party founder and wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian. The party's poor showing underscores the extent of political apathy and cynicism in Armenia, marked by the ordinary voter's inclination to accept both bribes and promises prior to an election, but to ignore both once in the voting booth.

Prosperous Armenia was established primarily to provide President Kocharian with the political power base he has never had before, rather than from any ideology or political platform. Yet even despite garnering fewer votes than it hoped for, and in stark contrast to its preelection boast of over 400,000 members nationwide, the election outcome does not necessarily mark Prosperous Armenia's premature eclipse.

On the contrary, the results actually fulfill the party's stated primary goals -- simply to emerge as a new political force and to enter parliament. Tasked with a novel political role as more a pro-presidential than a pro-government party, the future of Prosperous Armenia will be closely aligned with that of Kocharian, whether he opts for a Boris Yeltsin model of secure presidential retirement or some Vladimir Putin-style political future.

The third pro-establishment party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), the long-serving junior partner in the ruling coalition government, improved its position by securing 16 seats (compared with 11 in the outgoing parliament) and slightly more than 13 percent of the vote. But reflecting the intricacies of true parliamentary politics, the HHD has simultaneously emerged as a potential kingmaker in the new parliament, and as a broker in the formation of a new pro-government coalition in light of Sarkisian's stated preference for the broadest possible coalition, rather than relying on his parliamentary majority for a HHK-only government. Sarkisian's rationale is presumably that a broader coalition would expand support for his presidential bid next year, while at the same time preventing any potential alliance between the HHD and Prosperous Armenia that could pose a challenge to the HHK.

Opposition Ranks Changing

The election also resulted in significant shifts within the parliamentary opposition, notably the weakening of the opposition Orinats Yerkir party of former parliament Chairman Artur Baghdasarian. With less than 7 percent of the vote, the onetime member of the pro-government coalition will have only 10 deputies in the new parliament, but Baghdasarian has nonetheless made it clear that he intends to discard the opposition's traditional tactics of boycott and abstention, vowing to embark instead on a bold strategy of legislative confrontation.

Second, if the sidelining of Orinats Yerkir was generally expected, the failure of longtime opposition leader Stepan Demirchian and his People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) to surmount the 5 percent threshold for returning to parliament was not. The failure of both Demirchian -- whom Kocharian defeated in presidential runoffs in 1998 and 2003 -- and his opposition party to win reelection, and the HZhK's dismal 1.7 percent of the party-list vote, may reflect his erstwhile supporters' unhappiness at his refusal to sacrifice his personal ambition for the sake of creating a unified opposition bloc.

The third significant development was the emergence of a new dynamic political actor in the form of the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party of U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian. Official election results gave the party only 6 percent of the vote and a total of six parliament mandates, although many Armenians believe that the popular Hovannisian received a far greater number of votes, especially in Yerevan. The well-liked Hovannisian is hailed as a new opposition force, capable of injecting a new sense of optimism and integrity into Armenian politics.

What's Ahead

As the country's uncrowned new opposition leader, Hovannisian will most likely eclipse Baghdasarian in terms of both political prowess and popular appeal, thanks largely to his personal record. He is seen as untainted by corruption and, unlike Baghdasarian, free from the constraints of past association with the ruling elite. Most importantly, Hovannisian, who first moved to Armenia 16 years ago and served as its foreign minister in 1992, offers something new for Armenian politics, while still maintaining an established record of principled opposition and standing. He has waged a long battle with the Armenian authorities, beginning with the controversial rejection of his candidacy in the 2003 presidential election and culminating in the eviction of his party last year from the building housing its Yerevan headquarters. This dual record of political persecution and opposition has only endeared him to ordinary Armenians.

In this reconfigured political landscape, the main players now face the task of forming first a new coalition, and then a cabinet. Here too, the HHD will exert its newfound political power, demanding not only the retention of its existing ministerial portfolios (agriculture, education and social welfare), but also seeking the defense minister position for one of its members, former Deputy Defense Minister General Artur Aghabekian. Aghabekian, a leading reformer within the Armenian military who served as deputy to Prime Minister Sarkisian during the latter's tenure as defense minister, may also bring a new vitality to the post now held by the retirement-aged Colonel General Mikheil Harutiunian.

Still unclear is whether and how the reconfigured political landscape will impact the relationship -- and the rumored rivalry -- between Sarkisian and Kocharian. Over the medium term, politics will be driven by Sarkisian's clearly stated aspiration to succeed the outgoing president. But will Kocharian readily accept a passive role as a lame-duck president? Crucially, will Kocharian choose to ease Sarkisian's path to the presidency or to hinder it, possibly by backing a rival candidate?

A Precarious Balance

A Precarious Balance

Richard Giragosian at RFE/RL on May 25 (RFE/RL)

SECURITY SLIPPING AWAY?: On May 25, RFE/RL's Prague broadcasting center hosted a talk by RICHARD GIRAGOSIAN titled, "The Military Balance In The South Caucasus And Nagorno-Karabakh." Giragosian, a Washington-based analyst of international relations in the former Soviet Union, concentrated on the military balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan as the two countries continue to increase defense spending. Girogosian argued that corruption is the main threat to the national security of both countries. He also commented on other security issues in the South Caucasus, Iran, elsewhere.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 60 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media

Selected Articles By Richard Giragosian:

Nagorno-Karabakh: Peace May Depend On Military Situation

Georgia: Gas Cutoff Highlights National Security Flaws

Azerbaijan: Has Government Taken A Troubling Example From Andijon?


For an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of Nagorno-Karabakh, click here.


For weekly news and in-depth analysis on Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia's North Caucasus by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Caucasus Report."