19/02/2008 - Analysis
On 19th February next 2.3 million Armenians will be voting to appoint their President. Robert Kocharian, in office since 1998, is not allowed to stand for a third mandate since he was re-elected on 5th March 2003. Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian (Republican Party, HHK) is starting out as the favourite and is credited with 60% of the vote in the polls – he might be elected in the first round. If this is not the case then a second round will be organised on 4th March.
The Presidential Role in Armenia
According to the 1995 Constitution the President of the Republic is elected for 5 years by direct universal suffrage. His term in office is renewable once. He enjoys a great deal of power. He ensures the smooth running of the executive, legislative and legal matters. He is the Commander in Chief of the Army and guarantees the country's territorial integrity along with its security. He also has the right to dissolve the Azgayin Zhoghov, the only Chamber in Parliament.
9 people are running:
- Arman Melikian, former Foreign Minister for Nagorny Karabakh;
- Artaches Guegamian, leader of the National Unity Party (AM) and candidate in the presidential election on 19th February and 5th March 2003 (16.9% of the vote in the first round);
- Levon Ter-Petrossian, former and first President of Armenia (1991-1998) who in September 1991 led his country to independence. He has the support of the People's Party of Armenia led by Stepan Demirchian, Republic (H), the Democratic Party of Armenia led by Aram Sarkisian and the Pan-Armenian National Movement (HHSh) led by Ararat Zurabian;
- Serzh Sarkisian, present Prime Minister and leader of the Republican Party (HHK) has the support of the outgoing President Robert Kocharian, and the party which is a member of the present presidential majority, Prosperous Armenia (BHK) led by Gagik Tsarukian;
- Vazgen Manoukian, former Prime Minister (1990-1991) and leader of the National Democratic Union (AzhM) who has the support of the National Democratic Bloc, the Constitutional Rights Union and the National State Party;
- Vahan Hovhannisian, member of the Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutyun (HHD);
- Tigran Karapetian, leader of the People's Party;
- Artur Baghdasarian, leader of the opposition party, Rule of Law (OE), former chairman of Parliament;
- Aram Harutyunian, leader of the National Solidarity Party and candidate in the presidential election on 19th February and 5th March 2003 (2.8% of the vote in the first round).
The Electoral Campaign
"The presidential election is particularly important as far as Armenia's development is concerned. The general elections on 12th May 2007 were a surprise to many, a good presidential election would prove that transparency is the rule in Armenia and that the previous election was not an exception," declared Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Two-thirds of Armenians however do not share his point of view since 63% of them believe that the last general election was neither fair nor free. The 27 EU Member States did acknowledge however in October last via European Commission President José-Manuel Barroso "that positive change had been recorded during the general elections on 12th May 2007 in Armenia." The President stressed that he hoped to "see this trend continue in the presidential election in February 2008."
The Prime Minister was appointed as his party's official candidate on 10th November last at a congress during which he was appointed chairman of the party. The Republican Party claims to have 135,000 members in comparison with only 25, 000 in 2005. Serzh Sarkisian claims to be the guardian of continuity. "We shall never allow Turkey nor Azerbaijan to impose their law on us," repeats the Head of Government, a supporter of a hard line in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict.
The conflict in Nagorny Karabakh (Karabagh means 'black garden') has been poisoning Azeri-Armenian relations for decades. It is a mountainous, fertile area extending 4,400 Km2 and populated by 150,000 people (three quarters of whom are Armenians) and the region – which was part of Armenia until 1923, when Stalin decided to annex it to the Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, providing the region with autonomous status – is now an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. The Nagorny Karabakh proclaimed its independence on 10th December 1991, a declaration which together with the collapse of the USSR triggered a war between the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians living in the region who received the support of Erevan; the war led to over 30,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees.
In 1993 the Armenians captured a "security zone" of 8,000 Km2 that lies between their country and Azerbaijan. A cease-fire was signed on 12th May 1994 and this froze the situation, with the Armenians occupying around 15% of Azerbaijani territory (the Nagorny Karabakh and some surrounding districts). Since then negotiations undertaken by the Minsk Group on behalf of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to provide a negotiation framework, co-chaired by France, Russia and the USA still has not succeeded in coming to a peace agreement. In 2006 581 incidents were recorded on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, twice the number in 2005 (273).
On 19th February next the Prime Minister will be facing, amongst others, Levon Ter-Petrossian who officially announced his candidature on 27th October last in Erevan. This date was not selected at random: 27th October is in fact the anniversary of the 1999 attack when armed men attacked Parliament killing the President Karen Demirchian (father of Stepan Demirchian), Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian (brother of Aram Sarkisian) and six other political personalities. "This massacre heralded the start of a cleaning up operation that enabled Robert Kocharian to take power," stresses the former Armenian President who has said he will punish this terrorist act if he is elected head of State.
Levon Ter-Petrossian is standing as a curative solution and hopes to come back to power some ten years after his withdrawal from political life. The former President resigned on 3rd February 1998 after disputes with his then Prime Minister, Robert Kocharian and his Home Minister, Serzh Sarkisian, over the situation in the Nagorny Karabakh. Levon Ter-Petrossian was in support of a compromise whilst the government at that time recommended the annexation of the region by Armenia. His return to the fore therefore smacks somewhat of revenge. For many Armenians the name of Levon Ter-Petrossian is synonymous with war, economic depression and electricity cuts which punctuated his years in power. Serzh Sarkisian asked him incidentally to apologise for "having left the Armenians in a state of despair and the economy in a state of ruin."
Outgoing President Robert Kocharian refuses to consider Levon Ter-Petrossian as his main rival in this presidential election. "The first Head of State that Armenia experienced is not the main opposition candidate, there are at least two or three other personalities credited with a great number of voting intentions in the polls," he said adding, "I am sure that the Armenians do not want to experience the years 1995-1996 again."
On 8th January Levon Ter-Petrossian presented his electoral programme which he says is liberal. His programme includes many economic reforms including the total protection of private property and the respect of competition. The former President promises to double the country's GDP and to triple the State budget in five years. He hopes to "restore the State and constitutional order," and to settle relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan; he is also promising finally to settle the Nagorny Karabakh conflict and to lift the divisions between Armenians of Armenia and the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh.
Levon Ter-Petrossian, who says he is the only one able to compete against the ruling power, is extremely critical towards the government. He has indicated he would dismantle the "pyramid of corruption" on which outgoing President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian have ruled. He says he is ready to co-operate with the Republican Party as with all other former Prime Ministers except for the present head of Government whom he accuses of heading "a yob State that suffocates criticism and free enterprise." "For the last five years, the criminal regime has stolen 3 to 4 billion from the people," maintains Levon Ter-Petrossian. Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian has refused all debate with the former President.
"Levon Ter-Petrossian's strategy is the one followed by the leader of Soviet Armenia Karen Demirchian in the past. He withdrew from political life for ten years and during that time he has built himself a hero image. But contrary to Karen Demirchian, Levon Ter-Petrossian is not a source of nostalgia and is not synonymous with a period of security, peace and abundance," stresses political analyst Aris Ghazinian.
According to a poll by Sociometer, 61.5% of Armenians say they are interested in the presidential election on 19th February and 4th March next and nearly half of them (46%) forecast a victory for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Six out of ten people interviewed (60%) said they would vote for the present Head of Government and 28.5% say they will vote for Levon Ter-Petrossian. "The problem with Levon Ter-Petrossian is that it is difficult to see where he can win more votes," analyses Aharon Adibekian, director of Sociometer.
Reminder of the Presidential Election Results
on 19th February and 5th March 2003 in Armenia
Turn out: 61.2%
Source: Armenian Electoral Commission