Cihan News Agency (CNA) - Turkey
January 16, 2013 Wednesday


Armenian presidential election: dynamic of one-man race



ISTANBUL (CIHAN)- Next month's presidential election in Armenia will
be the first of this year's presidential races in the South Caucasus.
It is almost certain that this election will not garner the same
degree of interest from the international media as did the Georgian
parliamentary election last October.


The recent announcement by the Armenian Central Election Commission
(CEC) that just eight of the originally nominated 15 candidates are
still standing in the presidential race indicates that the current
president, Serzh Sarksyan, has no serious opponent. Despite this, a
part of society still holds onto the "dream" that the remaining
candidates will fight to defeat the incumbent president. Amid all the
uncertainties that Armenia faces at present, from economic struggles
to foreign policy choices -- especially in regard to its continued
reliance on Moscow, one thing appears to be certain: Sarksyan will be
elected to a second five-year term.

Why is Sarksyan the favorite to win?

Until late December, most observers of Armenian politics thought that
the Feb. 18 presidential election would be very competitive, for three
reasons. First, President Sarksyan suffered significant losses in
terms of public popularity due the country's socioeconomic problems.
Second, and crucially, the main opposition parties, the leaders of the
Armenian National Congress (ANC) and the Prosperous Armenia Party
(PAP) have gained significant political clout and popularity, enough
so that Sarksyan feels the political pressure. A third factor was the
comeback of former President Robert Kocharian, which threatened the
Sarksyan regime, and was hailed by the public as the "return of the
king," with Sarksyan demoted to "little lion."

Kocharian is known to be a keen hunter, and many have speculated about
his potential as a political predator. But it seems that Kocharian's
fondness for hunting does not extend to politics, or even to Armenia,
according to media releases in Tanzania. Thus not one of these three
"nightmare" possibilities has been visited upon Sarksyan. Indeed, the
forthcoming election does not bear comparison to the last one five
years ago when Armenia faced a very different kind of race: That
contest saw the political comeback of former President Levon
Ter-Petrossian, and the election was truly competitive.

Traditionally, in Armenian politics, the population does not take the
parliamentary elections seriously, as it has always been the
presidential race that mattered. This is true for most countries in
the former Soviet bloc countries, apart from the Baltic states and to
an extent Georgia. But in late December, the dynamic shifted, and the
president no longer felt in check. Ultimately, this shift occurred
because the leaders of both the ANC and PAP parties, Ter-Petrossian
and Gagik Tsarukian, decided not to run, and their parties indicated
that they would not endorse any other candidate. This move left
President Sarksyan feeling much safer; the other effect was to leave
the public wondering whether the ANC and PAP have lost faith in
society.


According to observers familiar with Armenian politics, the main
problem with this is that the public has lost hope in the possibility
of political change. The main opposition parties have refused to put
aside their political differences and tone down their arrogance,
citing an anticipated falsification of the vote as their reason for
bowing out. Given that the ANC and PAP have repeatedly complained
about government corruption and called for regime change, their
decision is hard to swallow, perceived as an act of defeatism, as
there is nothing honorable in refusing to participate in the
democratic process. PAP's decision seems more future-oriented, as it
neither opposes nor endorses any candidate; the hidden value of
supporting Sarksyan is more seats in government.

According to a poll by the Armenian Sociological Association,
conducted in late December, 52 percent of respondents are following
the political developments in the country and have a favorite in mind;
32 percent of them will participate in the elections; 24 percent are
undecided. The same poll shows that 20.5 percent of those who have
already decided who to vote for will vote for current President
Sarksyan.

Opposition: A loss without a fight?

So far, only eight candidates have complied with the requirement of
the current election code: a payment of 8 million drams (about
$20,000) as an electoral deposit. Among them, little-known candidates
have caused a stir, from pensioner Pavlik Sargsyan to unemployed
citizen Robert Simonyan.

Only two candidates pose any credible challenge to Sarksyan, former
Prime Minister Hrant Bagratyan, who is the leader of the Liberty
Party, and former Foreign Minister Raffi K. Hovannisian, founder of
the Heritage party, who is running as a self-nominated candidate.
Bagratyan is known as a reformist in Armenia; during the early years
of independence, he took charge of the country's main economic
reforms. His campaign is based on an economic program called "Only 100
Steps to Social Justice." Voters want to see a strong government with
a strong leader -- however, Hovannisian resigned twice from
parliament, his political demands are unclear, and thus his appeal as
a political leader is less strong.

The strategy of the opposition is essentially a boycott, withdrawing
their candidates from the election. According to the constitution, "If
only one candidate runs for the [presidential] election, s/he shall be
elected if s/he receives more than half of the votes of the electors
who participate in the polls." Under the electoral code, if there is
only one candidate standing for president, the ballot paper contains a
tick box for an "against" vote. Thus some opposition politicians have
supported the idea that Sarksyan should be the sole candidate -- the
requirement of winning 50 percent of the vote is a tougher one, and
the risk of defeat is greater.

It seems that in February's election, "defeating the incumbent
president" is not the challenge faced by the opposition, but one for
Sarksyan himself. If (and it is not a big if) he is elected, he will
still need to defend his political capital and his domestic policy.

ZAUR SHIRIYEV