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ON THE EVE OF THE CRUCIAL CHOICE By Emil Sanamyan With just a few days left before the presidential elections, the former Soviet Armenian boss of 14 years is reported to be in the lead. What do we have? Polls conducted by an organization ostensibly allied with the caretaker president Robert Kocharian, give Karen Demirchian some 40% of the vote. Kocharian himself is said to come second with 30% and the leader of the National-Democratic Union and first post-Soviet Armenian Prime-Minister Vazgen Manukian third with 15%. The other candidates share the remaining 15%. Considering that the poll was conducted largely in Yerevan, Demirchian's actual rating may be even higher, as he may fare significantly better in some of the provinces. Thus, if there were a second round of voting, the two top candidates are expected to be in dead heat, just as in the 1996 elections. How could it happen that Kocharian, only a week ago considered the undisputed favorite, is now trailing a candidate with no program, a record for corrupt affiliation in both Soviet and post-Soviet times, and with a past and yet to be denounced opposition to the Karabakh movement? What is wrong with Kocharian's campaign? The amount of support Demirchian is receiving from the electorate, overcome with hopelessness and ready to irrationally follow any symbol of economic security, can be understandable. However, several obvious mistakes in Kocharian's own campaign and other not so obvious factors play a role in boosting Demirchian's chances. Kocharian's very first mistake was to hold these elections on such a short notice. The Armenian political process is constrained by a constitution written with anything but perpetuation of democracy in mind. There is ample evidence that most political forces in the country were ready to at least postpone these elections. In the time thus made available, discussion on the political and constitutional future of the country, involving all representatives of Armenia's political spectrum, could have commenced. If the opinion to hold presidential elections were to prevail after all, there would still have been more time for the improvement of the technical side of voting, especially for citizens abroad, and rehashing of the existing central and regional electoral bodies that proved corruptible in 1996. A longer election campaign would also have diminished the chances of political opportunists, who are now able to mobilize undecided voters on the basis of unrealistic promises. It is not clear whether Demirchian's sudden return to political limelight was encouraged by Kocharian himself or his allies, so as to sway votes away from the more radical Communist candidate Sergei Badalian. If this was the case, then it was another, potentially even more detrimental mistake. If a Demirchian-Kocharian alliance was ever contemplated, it is now becoming increasingly unnecessary for the former, and may be ruled out by the latter. (Kocharian said he would return to NKR if he lost the elections.) Such an alliance would in any case be only temporary, as the two politicians have serious differences on major policy issues. More likely is a tacit alliance between Demirchian and the just-ousted from political power Armenian National Movement (HHSh). In the past seven years, Demirchian was in the top echelon of the financial political oligarchy, whose interests HHSh represented. In the 1996 elections Demirchian endorsed Levon Ter-Petrosian's candidacy because, as he recently said, "horses are not changed in midstream" (?!). Publicly withdrawn from the electoral process, HHSh is using the financial and political influence it still has for a coordinated attack against Kocharian and other nationalist candidates. Through its indirect candidates Vigen Khachatrian and Ashot Bleyan, and by corroborating others, like Badalian, David Shahnazarian, and elements that found their way into Kocharian's team, the HHSh is set to either prevent nationalists' victory or sabotage the electoral process. Politically passive, but highly symbolic, Demirchian is the most acceptable victor for HHSh, as well as the political circles in Moscow and Washington, that just lamented Ter-Petrosian's resignation. Demirchian is also likely to receive the backing of most regional leaders, who are currently self-professed and overzealous supporters of Kocharian. Most of these leaders, some of them already removed by the caretaker president, were part and parcel of HHSh's political machine, and are now threatened by Kocharian. Their support may come especially useful for Demirchian during the vote count, in which they had "showed initiative" during the past elections. While obviously baseless, questions about Kocharian's legal right to stand in elections have already and repeatedly been raised by political opportunists (including several candidates), and will not simply evaporate. And these too hamper Kocharian's campaign. What can be done? So what could be done to counter this multilateral, if not multi-national, effort to topple Kocharian or any other candidate, promising a more independent and firm posture on the part of Armenia? The only obvious solution within the electoral process is to again unite around a single national candidate as in September 1996. Two candidates, Paruir Hairikian and Hrant Khachatrian have already proposed alliances with Kocharian (the latter also with Manukian), and two others, Aram Sargsian and Artashes Geghamian are likely to back Kocharian. However, only an alliance including Vazgen Manukian can achieve a serious electoral success. As there are just over 100 hours left until the beginning of actual voting, the above candidates would have to campaign separately to take the elections into the second round. In the two subsequent weeks the multi-party alliance will have to be forged. Only Kocharian and Manukian are capable of defeating Demirchian and his allies. For other, more minor candidates, running as 'symbolic' presidents, it would be much more difficult to retain and expand the Manukian and Kocharian electorates. The key element of Manukian's platform is a constitutional reform and transition from presidential to parliamentary republic. The arrangement: President Manukian -- Prime Minister Kocharian, would thus seem most appropriate. Kocharian's withdrawal would also remove the issue of his legal status, as well as fears of "regionalism", from the agenda. Likely to come ahead of Manukian in the first round, Kocharian would also be better disposed to make temporary concessions, in return for the real executive power in the future. The two candidates would have to first overcome the opposition to such an alliance coming from within their own teams. Kocharian's ally, Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian already stated, that assuming Kocharian's victory, he would want to see Demirchian as Prime Minister (?!). But the same V. Sargsian has already shown the ability to overcome political differences when national issues are at stake ("Yerkrapah" -- "Dashnaktsutiun" cooperation is an example of this). Manukian's supporters, still quite bitter about past confrontations with V. Sargsian, would also have to compromise, as that's NDU's only opportunity for political success. Time is running out, however, and the leading nationalist candidates must take full advantage of the remaining opportunities for mutual confidence-building measures, agreement on joint election strategoes and the arrangements for after election power sharing. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Emil Sanamyan is a political science student at the University of Arizona.