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Armenia: Governing Party Eyes Landslide Victory In Local Elections

Armenians go to the polls on 20 October to elect the majority of their local government bodies. The election campaign has attracted little public attention, not least because of a striking lack of interest in the polls shown by virtually all Armenian parties. Only one of them, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party, is campaigning in earnest, hoping to widen its control of many local governments and cement its hold on the central government. As RFE/RL reports, Armenian President Robert Kocharian, who hoped to build a more diverse governing coalition, could thus become even more dependent on the Republicans in his bid to win next February's presidential election.

Yerevan, 17 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The governing Republican Party (HHK) is quietly reinforcing its status as Armenia's most powerful political organization as it appears headed to another landslide victory in Sunday's local elections.

Samvel Nikoyan, the HHK campaign manager, is a busy man these days, coordinating last-minute efforts by his party activists to win top executive positions in more than 200 cities and villages across the country. Even more Republicans are vying for seats in local legislatures. In addition, the party has endorsed scores of other pro-government candidates not affiliated with it: "I believe that after these elections, we will control more [local governments] than we did after the previous elections."

The Republicans and their allies had won control over 340 municipal and rural communities as a result of the October 1999 elections. The polls were held just days before their charismatic leader, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, was assassinated together with seven other officials in a terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament. The once tiny nationalist party, which landed in government after being taken over by Sarkisian in late 1998, has retained much of its clout despite a lack of popularity.

Other political parties now appear incapable of challenging the HHK hegemony. At least, none of them is preparing for the 20 October elections in earnest -- a fact which highlights the weakness of Armenian parties and seriously complicates the country's democratization. They simply do not view control of local administrations as a potential launching pad for seizing power in Yerevan, preferring instead to concentrate on national elections.

Nikoyan is bewildered by this political strategy. Speaking to our correspondent, he says: "If you have a strong base in local self-government bodies, it is much easier to make a strong showing in the following national elections. Frankly, I am surprised that many parties that are already preparing for the presidential elections are not particularly active now."

Both pro-presidential and opposition groups argue that they lack the muscle to defeat Republican and nonpartisan members of the "power class" at the local level. Albert Bazeyan is the chairman of the opposition Hanrapetutiun (Republic) party. "In these elections, the opposition cannot compete with those candidates who are campaigning with substantial financial resources and government levers."

The opposition indifference to the upcoming polls reflects the dominant mood among ordinary Armenians. Only 25 percent of them cast their ballots in the 1999 elections, which were judged "free and fair" by the Council of Europe. Voter turnout is not expected to be much higher this time around.

Those in the opposition say Armenia's government system is highly centralized and gives few powers to local authorities. Indeed, the country's constitution empowers the prime minister to sack locally elected community chiefs upon the recommendations of government-appointed governors of the larger provinces. The latter act as representatives of the central government and are responsible for implementing its policies. The Yerevan government also controls all taxation.

The local elections, which will be held in more than two-thirds of 930 Armenian "hamaynkner," or communities, have not been high on the agenda of a recently created coalition of 16 opposition parties that want to join forces to unseat Kocharian. The heavyweights like Hanrapetutiun have fielded several dozen candidates each. But most of them are running in rural communities, and virtually no Armenian city or town is likely to fall under opposition control.

Media attention is largely focused on Yerevan's central Kentron district, the only major opposition-controlled area in Armenia. Its incumbent head, Ararat Zurabian of the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement party, is facing a serious challenge from an obscure businessman tacitly supported by the HHK.

In most cases, it is wealthy and apolitical candidates, not the opposition, who are acting as the main Republican rivals.

Kocharian was until now widely believed to be trying to prop up other governing factions vis-a-vis the Republicans, fearing they might eventually threaten his hold on power. But the expected outcome of the local elections could force him to rely on Markarian's party even more heavily.

Despite his overwhelming control of the military and security apparatus, Kocharian needs the backing of a well-organized network of local governments to ensure his smooth reelection in February. This could, in turn, diminish the significance of other pro-presidential forces in his eyes.

No wonder that one of them, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun), is jealously reacting to the growing HHK influence. One of its leaders, Vahan Hovannisian, warned this week that the Republicans should not claim to be the No.1 governing party in Armenia: "Given the fact that they do not have an absolute or even relative majority in the parliament, their ambitions, which are manifesting themselves in the run-up to these elections, are a bit exaggerated."

Dashnaktsutiun is represented in Markarian's cabinet with two ministers and has one of the largest factions in parliament. However, it controls no city or municipal community and has fielded only three mayoral candidates.

So far, there has been little cooperation between the HHK, Dashnaktsutiun, and other major factions interested in Kocharian's re-election. Sunday's elections may only deepen cracks inside the presidential camp, especially if they are marred with violent incidents or allegations of vote rigging.