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Caucasus Report: March 17, 1998

17 March 1998, Volume 1, Number 3

Run-Off Looks Likely In Armenia. Political tension is mounting in Armenia following voting in the 16 March presidential election.

Armenia's Central Electoral Commission (CEC) says Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharian is leading, but is likely to face a run-off against his main challenger, communist-era leader Karen Demirchian.

Past Armenian elections have been marred by irregularities, and international observers and election specialists have warned that electoral fraud is equally possible this time. They said that the result of the election will decide the direction Armenia will take, either toward democracy or irresponsible authoritarianism.

Kocharian said that the vote had been generally fair, but acknowledged that violations may have occurred. He said all reported irregularities would be investigated.

But opposition candidates charged that widespread electoral fraud had taken place. Seven candidates, including Demirchian, National Democratic Union chairman Vazgen Manukian and current Communist leader Sergei Badalian, issued a joint statement on election day -- an hour before the close of the voting -- that said the election can't be considered free and fair, regardless of its results.

The head of the CEC, Khachatur Bezirjian, said the statement signed by the seven candidates is "political and not legal" and constitutes an attack on the CEC and Armenia's law enforcement bodies. Bezirjian says no facts have been presented which can prove the accusations.

The CEC said late on 17 March that with about 40 percent of the ballots counted (mainly in rural areas), Kocharian leads with 38 percent, well ahead of Demirchian's 27 percent. Badalian and Manukian are trailing with 17 and 10 percent, respectively. Bezirjian says the election results now coming in from Yerevan will not seriously affect the outcome and that a run-off vote on March 30 is likely.

In the joint statement's words: "The whole electoral process has proceeded in an atmosphere of widespread breaches of law, falsification and intimidation." Opposition activists claim that in many districts the number of ballots cast exceeded the actual number of voters registered there.

Kocharian's spokesman said the candidates, by refusing to accept their defeat, are undermining Armenia's international prestige. The CEC said that it has received few formal complaints. The opposition responds that it is in the process of documenting fraud cases in order to present them coherently.

Observers from an international team of about 180 people -- twice as many as in 1996 -- reported a few serious violations. One election official reported she had caught someone trying to drop 21 voting slips into a ballot box, while another official said a group of youths disrupted voting at a polling station, stuffing some 600 voting slips for Kocharian into a ballot box.

Observers from the Council of Europe witnessed a violation at another polling station where some 174 unregistered Armenian soldiers cast their ballots. id that they hadn't seen any serious violations at polling stations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is reserving all comment until the final results are known.

Observers are drawing parallels with the presidential election in September 1996, widely believed to have been rigged in favor of then-president Levon Ter-Petrossyan. That troubled election caused a bitter standoff between the authorities and the opposition. The residual problems with legitimacy eventually cost Ter-Petrossyan his post early last month.

In the present situation much depends on what steps Demirchian will do in the coming days. If he accepts the official results he will have a chance to beat Kocharian in the second round. But he lacks the grassroots organization that the Communists and the National Democratic Union have to head off irregularities.

This fact will prove more critical in the run-off, because Demirchian would single-handedly face Kocharian and the government apparatus.

One of the options for Demirchian is to pull out of the race and demand a re-run of the election. He probably has sufficient popular support to mount a campaign of mass protests. In this case, Communist leader Badalian might be next in line for the run-off after his unexpectedly strong showing in the election. (Emil Danielyan)

A New Election Paradigm. It is possible to identify four factors that -- either singly or combined -- have influenced voting patterns in elections in the North Caucasus and Transcaucasus over the past few years. None, however, is relevant to the Armenian presidential elections held on 16 March.

The first factor is the fear of jeopardizing the status quo when fragile political stability has been restored following a period of political chaos, war, and/or economic collapse. That factor played a role in Eduard Shevardnadze's election as Georgian president in November 1995 and in the emergence of his Union of Citizens of Georgia as the largest faction in the parliamentary elections held at the same time. It also contributed to the recent re-election of Ruslan Aushev as president of Ingushetia.

The second, related factor is a desire on the part of individual voters to play it safe. Particularly among older voters, there is a preference to vote for that candidate who is perceived as certain to win. This, too, contributed to Eduard Shevardnadze's 1995 presidential election victory and to the re-election in November 1995 of Heidar Aliyev as president of Azerbaijan. It may also have contributed to Aslan Maskhadov's election as Chechen president in January 1997 insofar as Moscow made clear that Maskhadov, who, together with former Russian Security Council secretary Aleksandr Lebed, had signed the agreement ending hostilities between Chechnya and Russia, was its preferred negotiating partner.

The third factor is a protest vote against a status quo perceived as no longer tolerable. Voting against a given individual and the policies he stands for explains the meteoric rise in popularity of opposition candidate Vazgen Manukian during the final weeks of the 1996 Armenian presidential election campaign. It also explains why incumbent Akhsarbek Galazov, who tried to distract the North Ossetian electorate's attention from the repercussions of economic collapse by organizing bombastic and elaborate Soviet-style, propagandistic-cultural galas, lost the January 1998 presidential race to a rival former Soviet party apparatchik, Aleksandr Dzasokhov.

The fourth factor is the practice of restricting or prohibiting the participation of various parties or candidates. For example, the alliance between the suspended Dashnak Party and the Union for Constitutional Rights was refused registration for the July 1995 Armenian parliamentary elections, and the Musavat party was similarly prohibited from registering candidates for seats to be contested under the proportional system in the November 1995 Azerbaijani parliamentary elections.

The pre-term Armenian presidential elections differ from earlier regional election scenarios insofar as on the eve of the poll it was impossible to predict with any degree of certainty which of the main candidates would win. Moreover, factors other than those listed above were in play: nostalgia and the phenomenon of personality or charisma. Karen Demirchian, who was Armenian Communist Party first secretary from 1974 to 1988, appeared set to benefit from the former, and Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharian and National Democratic Union chairman Vazgen Manukian from the latter. It also seemed possible that Kocharian would profit from a widespread desire for national consolidation, which played a key role in Zviad Gamsakhurdia's election as Georgian president in May 1991.

Whether nostalgia, the phenomenon of personality, and/or the desire for national consolidation will impact on the next Armenian parliamentary elections or whether voters will return to traditional voting patterns is impossible to predict at this point. (Liz Fuller)