Prague, 19 September 1996(RFE/RL) -- Armenian citizens go to the polls Sunday to elect a president. They will have four candidates to choose from -- three fewer than when the campaign began four weeks ago.
Analysts say only two of the candidates have a real chance of victory: the incumbent, Levon Ter-Petrossian, and his main rival Vazgen Manukian.
Ter-Petrossian has followed a course of moderate reform during his five years of presidency. He has called for development of democratic institutions, for continuing the struggle against corruption in government and law enforcement agencies, and for strengthening the military and intelligence services. He has also pledged to continue free market reforms and advocates cooperation with Russia, Georgia and Iran.
But Ter-Petrossian faces criticism for failing to resolve the dispute with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh. He is also criticized for failing to revive Armenia's economy, ravaged by the continuing blockade imposed by Azerbaijan, as well as for mistakes in privatization policy. Armenia is largely dependent on trade with Russia and Iran.
Earlier this week, three of the seven presidential candidates dropped out of the race to give their backing to the leading opposition candidate, Vazgen Manukian. Manukian appears to have support also among urban intellectuals. One of the presidential drop-outs, ex-dissident Paruir Airikian, said in Yerevan two days ago that Manukian is backed by the banned Armenian Revolutionary Federation, better known as the Dashnaks.
The Dashnaks were banned two years ago, ostensibly because much of their funding came from abroad and because some of their leaders were not Armenian citizens.They were also accused of carrying out subversive activities. Actually, the Dashnaks were seen by the government as being too powerful.
Earlier this year, the Dashnaks set up a new leadership said to be independent of the group's main office in Athens. They say that they made corrections in their internal rules. And they are now awaiting Armenian Justice Ministry action on their request for registration.
Vazgen Manukian, who served as prime minister for 13 months in 1990 and 1991 and did a stint as acting defense minister in 1992, has pledged to crack down on corruption and the shadow economy, to introduce more equitable social and economic policies and to amend the constitution so as to curtail the powers of the president.
The other two candidates are Armenian Communist Party first secretary Sergei Badalian and Ashot Manucharian, who was acting interior minister and served as a national security advisor until he had a falling out with Ter-Petrossian in 1993. He has taken now a strongly pro-Russian stand.
Three of the four candidates remaining in the race share a similar past in openly opposing the communist authorities in the late 1980's. Ter-Petrossian, Manukian and Manucharian were all founding members of the Karabakh Committee in 1988, when Armenians massed in the streets of Yerevan in support of their embattled countrymen in Azerbaijan. They all demanded Armenian independence from the Soviet Union. As a result of their activities, the three spent six months in a Moscow prison from December 1988 until May 1989.
Analysts say their current differences are personal rather than ideological and largely center on specific policies.
The odd man out is Badalian, whose Communist Party took about 12 percent of the vote in last year's parliamentary elections. In an interview in Yerevan this week with OMRI's Liz Fuller, Badalyan advocated what he termed "renewed socialism." He called for a new economic policy and the re-establishment of agricultural collectives, which, he says, peasants would join voluntarily without giving up their recently privatized land.
Badalyan also advocates limiting the president's powers. He said Armenia should join the Russo-Belarus union "in order to guarantee Armenia's national security."
Armenian citizens living abroad will be allowed to vote on Sunday. But the chairman of the central election committee, Khachatur Bezirjian, says only 10,000 of the 800,000 Armenian citizens estimated to be living abroad are expected to vote because very few of them registered in advance at Armenian diplomatic missions. Bezirjian says Armenian citizens living in Nagorno- Karabakh and wanting to vote will have to cast their ballots in Armenia.
Observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will monitor the elections at about ten percent of the polling stations in the country.In the event that no candidate wins more than half the votes nationwide, a run-off will be held October 6.