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Is Armenian Presidential Election An Exercise In Futility?

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian -- running unopposed?
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian -- running unopposed?
The Armenian presidential election scheduled for February 18 differs from earlier ballots in two key respects. First, none of the seven opposition candidates is perceived as posing a serious challenge to incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian, whose reelection for a second five-year term is seen as a given, even by most of those challengers.

And second, in the absence of any serious competition, the bravura tactics espoused by some lesser-known candidates with minimal or no political experience have been condemned by some local commentators as devaluing the entire concept of democratic political struggle.

Armenia's Central Election Commission registered just eight of the 15 would-be presidential candidates. The two men long seen as the most serious potential challengers to the incumbent president, Prosperous Armenia (Bargavach Hayastan, BH) party Chairman Gagik Tsarukian and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, both announced last month they would not participate in the ballot. Neither provided a convincing explanation for his decision. The political organizations they head both decided not to field or support an alternative candidate.

Of the other opposition parties represented in parliament, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) declined to nominate a candidate on the grounds that the vote will not be democratic. So, too, did the Free Democrats, who split from Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress (HAK) in 2010.

The eight registered candidates are:

Incumbent Sarkisian. Born in June 1954 in the then-Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, he was an active participant in the fighting that cemented the breakaway region's de facto independence from Azerbaijan. Following the election of his fellow Karabakhtsi Robert Kocharian as president of Armenia in 1998, Sarkisian served as Armenian interior minister, defense minister, and prime minister. He was elected president in the February 2008 ballot in which Kocharian was barred by the constitution from seeking a third term.

The opposition maintains that Sarkisian has done nothing to dismantle the corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy he inherited. It further adduces the continuing emigration of hundreds of thousands of Armenians as evidence of economic mismanagement.

Raffi Hovannisian, 53, chairman of the opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party he founded in 2002. Hovannisian served under Ter-Petrossian from 1991 to 1993 as Armenia's first postindependence foreign minister. His political inconsistency -- he resigned his parliament mandate in September 2009 and then reversed that decision two weeks later -- may have contributed to a decline in his party's popularity: it won just five seats in the May 2012 parliamentary elections compared with seven in 2007.

Hrant Bagratian, 54, served as prime minister under Ter-Petrossian from February 1993 to November 1996. A career economist with an impressive list of publications, he presided over key reforms that accompanied Armenia's transition to a market economy. His Azatutiun (Liberty) party founded in 1997 backed Ter-Petrossian's 2008 presidential bid, but suspended its membership of the HAK late last year due to reservations over Ter-Petrossian's efforts to reach agreement with BH on a single opposition candidate.

Paruyr Hairikian, 63, spent a total of 11 years in Soviet prison camps and a further three in internal exile for his membership in a clandestine political organization and authoring "samizdat." As head of the then-illegal Union for National Self-Determination, he played a key role in early 1988 in circulating information on the burgeoning campaign for Nagorno-Karabakh's transfer to Armenia. In May 1988, Hairikian was again arrested, and exiled to the United States. He returned to Armenia in November 1990, and participated in the 1991 presidential election, finishing second to Ter-Petrossian with 7.2 percent of the vote. In 1996, he withdrew his presidential candidacy in favor of former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian; in the 1998 election he placed fifth with 5.4 percent of the vote.

Arman Melikian, 49, was born in Yerevan, graduated with a degree in Iranian studies from Yerevan State University, and served as Armenian ambassador to Kazakhstan before being named foreign minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in 2004. He ran in the 2008 Armenian presidential election, placing eighth of nine candidates with just 0.27 percent of the vote. In announcing his candidacy last month, Melikian argued that the "discredited" opposition has collapsed, leaving the leadership in a political vacuum.

Aram Harutiunian, chairman of the extraparliamentary National Accord party, also ran for president in 2008, placing last with 0.18 percent of the vote.

Andreas Ghukasian is a political analyst who manages the Yerevan-based private radio station Radio Hay.

Vartan Sedrakian is an expert on myths and epic poetry.

Seven more hopefuls were denied registration after they proved unable to pay the mandatory cash deposit of 8 million drams ($20,000) required by the Electoral Code, even after the deadline for doing so was extended by 48 hours. Two of them, Robert Simonian and unemployed pensioner Pavlik Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh), argued that the deposit is unfair given that "95 percent of the population is socially vulnerable." Simonian appealed his rejection to the Constitutional Court.

Prominent HAK member Lyudmila Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh) has alleged that some of the little-known candidates were persuaded by the authorities to register in order to create the illusion of a democratic and competitive ballot. She did not name them individually.

A Foregone Conclusion?

Most observers are convinced that President Sarkisian will easily garner the 50 percent-plus-one-vote needed for reelection in the first round of voting. So, too, does Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia: one of its parliament deputies, Gagik Minasian, went so far as to affirm that even the participation of HAK, BH, and HHD candidates would not have deprived Sarkisian of a first-round victory.

A local pollster predicted on the basis of a survey conducted in December that Sarkisian will win 72 percent of the vote and Hovannisian 20 percent. Hovannisian, however, believes that what he terms the "struggle between Serzh's Armenia and Raffi's Armenia" will go to a second-round runoff.

Sarkisian himself told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that he does not agree "with those who say there are no strong competitors or people who could poll a significant number of votes," mentioning the "merits and track record" of Hovannisian, Bagratian, and Hairikian.

Other oppositionists still hope that it may prove possible to rally disaffected voters behind a single opposition candidate. Petros Makeyan, head of the Democratic Motherland party that is a member of Ter-Petrossian's HAK, proposed that two of the three strongest challengers (Bagratian, Hovannisian, and Hairikian) should pull out of the race, in which case the remaining one would stand a better chance, but commentators consider this unlikely.

Responding to that proposal, Hairikian proposed last week that all opposition parties should conclude an agreement on backing a single candidate. He hinted that he himself would consider dropping out, but did not specify in whose favor.

The seeming inevitability that Sarkisian will be reelected has led some opposition commentators to conclude that the election is little more than a sham, and that the participation of total unknowns devalues the very concept of democratic elections. "That the 2013 presidential election has been turned into a theater is now beyond doubt," commented on January 8.

The subsequent actions and rhetoric of two of the lesser-known candidates has substantiated that perception. Sedrakian has publicly boasted that he would have spent about $2 million on his campaign except that the election law pegs campaign-related spending at 100 million drams ($250,000). Ghukasian first called on all opposition candidates to withdraw, then declared a hunger strike to demand that Serzh Sarkisian's registration be annulled.

The independent daily "Hraparak" lambasted such tactics as "ludicrous," "destructive," and "detrimental to the formation of civic consciousness." At the same time, the paper concurs that the participation in the ballot of persons "who decided to become famous at the expense of being ridiculous" was facilitated by "individuals and state institutions that for years have consistently devaluated the post of Armenia's president and the electoral system."

The opposition "Haykakan zhamanak" makes the point that while the emergence of new figures on the political arena is a good thing in theory, a presidential election is not an appropriate environment to make one's political debut. "On the contrary, [elections] should be the climax of a person's public activities that only a limited number of individuals can achieve," it says. "It's normal when an election is contested by one or two new, exotic figures. But when they are a majority, it says nothing good about the level of maturity of the public elite."

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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