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Armenia: A Dozen Candidates Contest Presidency

Prague, 13 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Armenians go to the polls to elect their president on Monday (March 16).

Twelve candidates are running but only three have a reasonable chance of winning. If needed, a run-off election will be held in two weeks time.

The three leading contenders are: Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharian, who formerly served as president of the self-styled Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. He is not a member of any party but is supported by the recently re-legalized Dashnak party.

Vazgen Manukian, chairman of the National Democratic Union and liberal who narrowly lost presidential elections to Levon Ter-Petrosian in October 1996.

Karen Demirchian, former first secretary of the central committee of the Armenian Communist Party from 1974 until 1988, who now manages the Hai-Elektro electrical appliance factory in Yerevan. He is favored to gain the most votes in the first round. Manukian is said to have the largest grass roots support, the biggest party organization but perhaps the toughest road to victory.

Kocharian is supported by the political establishment -- those in power at the national, district and local level who previously supported Ter-Petrosian but withdrew their support over his perceived willingness to compromise with Azerbaijan on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

Mayor Suren Avetisian of Spitak, which was leveled in the December 1988 earthquake and is still only 20 percent reconstructed, says city hall is solidly for Kocharian.

"After the Soviet Union dissolved itself, the government no longer paid full attention to what was happening in Spitak until our prime minister came on January 23 this year. Prime Minister Robert Kocharian listened attentively to all our questions and his aides took notes on all the data and responded, promising full support for Spitak and the surrounding quake zone."

Avetisian says that visit was not a pre-election campaign tactic since it preceded Ter-Petrosian's resignation and the calling of early elections.

"In one month, the government of Armenia has done what it did not do for the previous six years, that means we are thankful and know that there is a leader who understands the people's pain."

Avetisian adds that if a person understands what has to be done for his nation and does not do this to gain votes but to rebuild destroyed villages and towns, people will vote for such a person. He has clearly Kocharian in his mind.

Demirchian lacks an extensive organization, but has rocketed in opinion polls since announcing his candidacy. There have been reports that Kocharian might have asked him to run to reduce Manukian's chances. Demirchian denies that. Demirchian enjoys widespread popularity among middle aged and older people. This appears to be based on the perception that when he ran Armenia the country was stable, secure and relatively prosperous.

A 78-year-old earthquake survivor in the village of Shirokamud, Lena Morgoshia, known to her neighbors as Baba Lena, offers typical views on why she will vote for Demirchian on Monday. She says things have gone from bad to worse in the nearly seven years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"It's very bad. Everything has fallen apart and so far we have not been able to expect anything good. But if that guy who is now running, Demirchian -- he used to be secretary of the Central Committee of the Party -- if he gets elected, then our lives will change. He's very good, not bad, he is good. He knows everything, like whom to turn to. The others, who have been in power until now, are only interested in filling their own pockets."

Demirchian refuses to be placed anywhere on the political spectrum. He portrays himself as a candidate of peace, capable of reaching an acceptable deal on Karabakh with his old Kremlin comrade, Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev.

"...I worked together with Aliyev, that's a fact, no one denies this fact, on the contrary, of course we worked together. He was the leader of one republic, I (was the leader) of another republic; we worked in a single union and naturally met and spoke....this could be a positive factor in (future) negotiations."

Critics say Demirchian risks selling out on Karabakh and has merely adopted slogans about peace, democracy and market economics without understanding their implications.

Demirchian's soaring popularity has taken Kocharian and Manukian activists by surprise, although it has not stopped their own in-fighting. Kocharian supporters attacked several Manukian supporters in the southwestern town of Ararat on Sunday.

Political analysts in Yerevan say that a prospect of Demirchian's victory could push Manukian's and Kocharian's supporters to do "everything" on election day and in the subsequent counting of votes to ensure that Demirchian does not win in the first round. To win, a candidate must gain at least 50 percent of the vote.

In the words of one analyst in Yerevan, who declined to be quoted by name, "for Demirchian to win in the first round, he would need 70 percent of the vote."

Another presidential candidate, former dissident Paruyr Hayrikian, says that a Demirchian victory would provoke the public within six months to go into the streets and demand his resignation. Hayrikian concedes his own election chances are minimal.

"In the event of my victory, within one year, Armenians will finally be able to feel what democracy is about. Within one year, it will be possible to make changes to the constitution so that parliament becomes a natural representative organ of our nation, so that people understand that parliament is their protector and supporter."

Hayrikian adds that he would reduce presidential powers and invite the public to use the constitutional court, currently open only to cases brought by the president, MPs or candidates. As Hayrikian puts it, "I want to return power to my fellow-countrymen so that they become natural masters of their own country."

Hayrikian opposes his former fellow member of the Karabakh committee ten years ago, Karen Manukian.

"A Manukian victory would mean the coming to power of those forces which basically are for democracy, but Vazgen Manukian essentially is no democrat ... for Vazgen Manukian, democracy is an instrument for circumventing difficulties, particularly getting around moral problems."

Hayrikian says that in the event of Manukian victory, he will hardly be able to hold on to power for longer than one year because of the large number of opportunists in his camp.

Therefore Kocharian presents Hayrikian with another dilemma.

"On the positive side, the problems of 'one nation, one president' would be resolved, and this is not just a matter of Karabakh but of Armenians. His election would bring clarity to foreign policy but this would be accompanied by difficulties since Karabakh in recent years has behaved as an independent unit."

Hayrikian adds that Kocharian's victory will only continue what he terms the "velvet coup" of early February that toppled Ter-Petrosian. Moreover, he says that Kocharian remains a citizen of the still unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh and is, therefore, not a citizen of Armenia. That argument was rejected last week by the electoral commission.

Hayrikian's calls for constitutional changes are echoed by Kocharian himself, who has also called for the establishment of balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

"Naturally, limitations have to be made on the powers of the president for the greater stability of the country."

Kocharian calls for Karabakh's participation in peace negotiations with Azerbaijan and pledges to create conditions for foreign investment in Armenia, something he says his predecessors failed to consider worthy of attention.