Armenians will be voting for president in February, but it looks like they will have to defer expectations of a genuinely competitive election.
The incumbent, Serzh Sargyan, would have been the favorite in any event. But now he is widely expected to cruise to reelection in the February 18 poll. That’s because, in a surprise move, Armenia’s largest opposition parties are opting out of the presidential contest, announcing they will not field candidates. The decision leaves a sizeable question mark over whether or not the election will enhance, or further damage, the Armenia’s democratization image.
While it appears Sargsyan won’t have to break a sweat during the campaign, he still will face token opposition on the ballot. The diverse array of pretenders to the presidency includes a specialist in Armenian epic poems and a 45-year-old unemployed man. The field also features a former foreign minister and a former prime minister. But none of the challengers possesses the level of political heft needed to pose a credible threat to the Republican Party of Armenia’s 13-year-plus hold on power.
Five years ago, in the last presidential election, Armenia faced a sharply different situation: that contest saw the political comeback of former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, who rallied support with calls for a non-stop struggle against the government.
This time round, according to political analyst Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan, “the deeper political implications from the election stem more from who is not running.”
Citing his age, among other reasons, the 68-year-old Ter-Petrosian announced in December that he would not run for office. “Whatever they say, a 68-year-old person cannot work with the same diligence and commitment as those in their forties or fifties,” he told the newspaper Chorrord Ishkhanutiun (Fourth Estate). “I have to concede the arena to those who are younger than me.”
The degree to which the deadly 2008 post-election clashes between police and opposition protesters influenced Ter-Petrosian’s decision is not clear. Ter-Petrosian’s party, Armenia’s largest opposition group, the Armenian National Congress (ANC), has stated simply that it has no plans to back a younger man, or woman, for this year’s presidential race. It called attention to alleged past election fraud, inflated voter lists and what it described as a “counterfeiting machine” for votes.
Beyond the ANC, Prosperous Armenia, the country's second-largest party after Sargsyan’s Republican Party, along with the usually outspoken Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, have also declined to mount a presidential campaign. Both parties have so far offered no explanation for their inaction.
That leaves Sargsyan facing “only two candidates,” [Heritage Party leader Raffi Hovannisian who served as Armenia’s first foreign minister after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian], who “are seen as serious political figures,” commented Giragosian. The expert emphasized, however, that both Hovannisian and Bagratian are “perceived as weak underdogs, more capable of raising issues than garnering votes.”
The fact that none of Armenia’s largest opposition parties chose to field a presidential candidate this year “indicates the level of perversion in the political arena,” asserted Manvel Sargsian, director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, a Yerevan-based think-tank.
“These elections showed who is who, and that many people who spoke about a struggle did not think about systematic efforts [to gain power], but about other things,” Sargsian said.
The decisions of Prosperous Armenia, headed by billionaire businessman Gagik Tsarukian, and the ANC came as a particular surprise for observers. Prior to their respective announcements, party activists had urged rank-and-file supporters to be ready for the campaign.
Remaining on the sidelines doesn’t sit well with some of Ter-Petrosian’s backers.
“I feel as if I've been deceived. We had high hopes in 2008, and now we are in a vacuum,” said Andranik Avagin, a 28-year-old manager for a private company in Yerevan. “Has Levon Ter-Petrosian just realized that he is too old? Has the ANC only now realized that elections are being falsified? What about the struggle?”
Candidate Raffi Hovannisian counters that the absence of Ter-Petrosian, Tsarukian and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation “does not mean that the elections will not be competitive.” In January 8 remarks to reporters, Hovannisian also seemed to take a swipe at the de-facto election boycott. The “easiest thing of all” for an opposition party to do is “to sit at home,” he said.
Giragosian, the political analyst, contended that the relatively weak competition for Sargsyan offers an opportunity for a clean vote, something that international observers have never recognized in Armenia. The very “lack of an openly competitive race … requires a clear improvement in the vote itself,” he said.
Representatives of the European Union, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and United States have all underlined that they will be watching the vote closely for any improvement on Armenia’s past experiences at the polls. Last October, the EU linked the conduct of the election to “the pace of our bilateral cooperation with Armenia.”
The governing party, for its part, maintains that everything is in order, and that past international recommendations have been duly noted. “[T]he elections in Armenia will be democratic,” assured Parliamentary Speaker Hovik Abrahamian in a January 9 statement. “This is our political will.”