YEREVAN/GYUMRI, Armenia -- A presidential candidate on a four-week hunger strike. Another candidate who declares he will not accept the election results -- even if he wins. A murky apparent assassination attempt. Up to one-third of eligible voters legally barred from casting ballots because they are out of the country.
You might think this would be more than enough to make a presidential election exciting. But if you are talking about the February 18 vote in Armenia, you'd be mistaken.
Despite facing a slate of six challengers, incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian, according to all polls, seems set to cruise to a second term. Surveys show him winning about 70 percent of the vote, more than 25 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival.
But what the campaign has lacked in suspense it has more than made up for in strangeness.
For instance, candidate Andrias Ghukasian, the 42-year-old owner of a Yerevan radio station, has been on a hunger strike since the campaign began. He is calling for Sarkisian's candidacy to be annulled and for international observers to boycott the vote. In a sense, he is running against the election itself.
Likewise, 49-year-old Arman Melikian, a former official in the government of the de facto independent Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh, has denounced the election in advance as "illegitimate."
"I will not accept the official results," he told RFE/RL's Armenian Service. "Yes, even if I win," he added.
And then there is the story of Paruyr Hairikian, the 63-year-old head of the Self-Determination Party. He was shot and wounded outside his home on January 31.
After considerable flip-flopping, he decided on February 10 to ask the Constitutional Court to delay the election for two weeks. But the next day he withdrew his request, saying that he couldn't bear the thought of prolonging Ghukasian's hunger strike.
Meanwhile, Armenia security forces have arrested two men who reportedly confessed to shooting Hairikian. And presidential candidate Vartan Sedrakian, a political neophyte who describes himself as an expert in Armenian epic poetry, says he fears he will be arrested because he knew the two suspects and that they had even been hired to distribute his campaign literature.
There are serious issues facing this South Caucasus country: navigating between Russia and the West, tensions with neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a faltering economy that is dominated by oligarchs and increasingly dependent on remittances sent from abroad, among others.
But such matters have rarely made it into the campaign, which began on January 21 and has not featured any direct debates among the contenders. Instead, it has been a campaign of rhetoric and gestures.
One exchange between the U.S.-born former foreign minister, Raffi Hovannisian, who is Sarkisian's closest rival, and the incumbent was typical.
Speaking at a rally in Armenia's second-largest city, Gyumri, on February 10, Hovannisian presented the choice facing voters in Manichean, albeit vague, terms: "This is not a struggle between Raffi and Serzh. This is not a battle between our political parties. It is a struggle for good, and good will win in the end."
This prompted Sarkisian to respond at a rally in Yerevan the next day: "Yesterday, one of the candidates stated the upcoming election was going to be a choice between good and evil. All the candidates had, until that moment, been more or less tactful. So have they again begun dividing the nation into us and them, into good and evil? When will they realize the country is sick and tired of such divisions?"
A Referendum On Sarkisian
The field of candidates was weakened from the start after some heavyweights decided not to run. Sixty-eight-year-old former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who finished second to Sarkisian in 2008, stepped aside in December, citing his age as the main reason. His Armenian National Congress is boycotting the election.
Earlier, millionaire Gagik Tsarukian of the Prosperous Armenia Party, the country's second-largest, also said he would not run. Prosperous Armenia cooperated with Sarkisian's government in his first term and performed poorly in the May 2012 legislative elections. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation also decided to sit out this election, despite fielding candidates in all of Armenia's previous presidential ballots.
Despite praise from monitors who generally say the campaign environment this time has been better than in previous elections, opposition figures accuse Sarkisian's Republican Party of using "administrative resources" to support the president. In an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service in January, Sarkisian said it was not the government's fault that the opposition is weak and rejected charges of an uneven playing field.
"Of course, it is very difficult for them because members of the Republican Party today are leaders in more than 70 percent of local government bodies across Armenia. And no matter how much they say that this is due to the use of government resources, I can never agree with that," Sarkisian said.
"People there waged a political struggle and got into leadership positions. And why shouldn’t they use their leadership -- I mean, their prestige -- for their political party or for ensuring the victory of their party's leader?"
Will Anyone Vote?
In addition, opposition activists have criticized a change to the Electoral Code that severely restricted voting from abroad, meaning that up to 1 million Armenian citizens currently living or traveling outside the country will be unable to vote. The government says that change was made because of the high cost of arranging out-of-country voting, while the opposition charges it was done because voters abroad historically cast ballots overwhelmingly for opposition candidates.
Although the election is not competitive, Sarkisian is under pressure to preside over a relatively clean vote. He came to the presidency following a 2008 campaign that the opposition alleged was flawed. In the weeks between the election and his inauguration, opposition protests were violently put down by the authorities and a state of emergency was declared.
In many ways Sarkisian's first term has been devoted to establishing his legitimacy, a process that he hopes will be completed with the February 18 ballot.
But Armenians in general are following the election-season antics with a mixture of indifference and cynicism. One pensioner in Gyumri told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that he wasn't sure whether he'll vote or not.
"There have been a lot of promises. But unfortunately they have never been kept," he said.
Written by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting from RFE/RL's Armenian Service correspondents Ruzanna Stepanian in Yerevan and Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri. Naira Bulghadaryan of RFE/RL's Armenian Service also contributed to this report from Yerevan