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Armenia: Voters Display Indifference To Elections

Prague, 27 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- On Sunday (May 30), Armenians go to the polls to elect a new parliament. More than 600 candidates are vying for 75 seats to be allocated in single-candidate constituencies. Some 1,000 more, representing 21 separate parties and blocs, will contend 56 seats to be allocated under the proportional system to those parties that poll a minimum of 5 percent of the vote.

The election campaign has been the subject of intense discussion in the press, not least because Armenia's chances of being accepted into full membership of the Council of Europe depend largely on the voting being perceived as free and fair. That would be a contrast to the parliamentary elections of 1995 and the presidential polls of 1996 and 1998, which international monitors criticized as marred by vote-rigging.

But much of the country's electorate is reportedly apathetic, leading some observers to predict a low turnout. Commentators note the broad similarities between the various parties' election programs. Virtually all of them vow to stamp out poverty, revitalize the economy, rebuild the region of northern Armenia devastated by the 1988 earthquake, and "achieve a just solution to the Karabakh conflict."

The lack of a clear choice between several alternative programs has substantiated the widespread impression that what is ultimately at stake is who will gain control over the process of political decision-making and the accompanying privileges. And many voters are convinced that the outcome of that distribution of power and privilege will have no positive impact on their daily struggle to make ends meet. In particular, many see the outcome as crucial to the future fortunes of Prime Minister Armen Darpinian, two "power" ministers from the government of the Republic of Armenia, and the powerful Defense Minister of the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Darpinian, whom most observers believe will forfeit his post after the elections, is reportedly sponsoring the recently-created "Decent Future" party headed by respected sociologist Lyudmila Harutnunian. Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) has joined forces with the People's Party of Armenia founded last year by former Armenian Communist Party First Secretary, and defeated 1998 presidential candidate, Karen Demirchian. Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sargsian (who is not related to Vazgen) is widely believed to be supporting the "Country of Law" Party. And Karabakh Defense Minister Samvel Babayan has openly declared his backing for the nationalist "Right and Accord" bloc that unites two more of last year's vanquished presidential candidates, Hrant Khachatrian, chairman of the Union for Constitutional Rights, and Artashes Geghamian, leader of the organization "National Unity." Babayan explained his involvement in the election campaign by his strong disapproval of the economic policies of the present Armenian leadership.

Most observers agree that the Miasnutyun ("Unity") bloc of Demirchian and Vazgen Sargsian is likely to win the greatest number of seats, if not an absolute majority. They base that prediction on Demirchian's undoubted popularity, which is based largely on the "nostalgia factor." Some Armenian journalists have also suggested that Miasnutyun's strong representation on regional electoral commissions could facilitate vote-rigging. That argument discounts Vazgen Sargsian's statements that he will take all possible measures to ensure the fairness and transparency of the vote. And Demirchian's popularity is so great that the risks of such interference being detected could outweigh the potential benefit. Other commentators, however, suggest that some voters who backed Demirchian against Robert Kocharian in last year's presidential election may construe his alignment with Vazgen Sargsian as a betrayal, and transfer their support to the Communist Party of Armenia, one of five or six parties that are considered likely to poll the minimum five percent needed for representation under the proportional system.

Of the "traditional" parties that have played a prominent role in Armenian politics since 1991, only the Armenian Revolutionary Federation - Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), Vazgen Manukian's National Democratic Union, and Paruir Hairikian's Self-Determination Union are believed to stand a chance of surmounting the five percent barrier, together with "Country of Law." The former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) is not expected to do so, although individual candidates, including its controversial chairman Vano Siradeghian, may win seats under the majoritarian system.

Speaking in northern Armenia over the weekend, President Kocharian hinted strongly that he will ask Miasnutyun and the HHD to form a new cabinet after the elections, in which case Demirchian is considered the obvious choice for prime minister. But neither Vazgen Sargsian's repeated denials that he harbors presidential ambitions nor Kocharian's expressions of support and approval for Miasnutyun have demolished the perception of a rift between Vazgen Sargsian and the president, which is believed to pose a long-term threat to the latter.

Some analysts have even suggested that Miasnutyun was created with the backing of former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov and the Russian military to torpedo Kocharian's policy of balancing Armenia's traditional pro-Russian orientation with a drive for integration into European structures. Vazgen Sargsian, by contrast, has made no secret of his view that Russia should be Armenia's main defense partner.

An alternative, but somewhat implausible, hypothesis is that a secret pact exists between Demirchian and former president Levon Ter-Petrossian who is not running for election, and that a Miasnutyun victory would pave the way for Ter-Petrossian's return to politics.

Other aspects of the election campaign have also given grounds for concern. Leaders of several opposition parties, including Vazgen Manukian and Paryur Hayrikian, have charged that the process of registration of candidates and parties was marred by widespread irregularities. They predict that the poll will be no more free and fair than previous elections. Some prominent HHSh members, together with the chairman of the Liberal Democratic and 21st Century parties, Vigen Khachatrian and Davit Shahnazarian, are boycotting the poll on the assumption that the outcome has been determined in advance. Some skeptics suggest that the real reason for their reluctance is that their chances of election are virtually non-existent.

And the fact that numerous businessmen with connections to the present government or to the Republican Party have spent large sums of money on campaigning has generated fears. The worry is that future parliament deputies may be reluctant to enact legislation that would undermine their own financial interests, even if these steps were to benefit the population at large.

(First of two features previewing Sunday's Armenian elections.)