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Review & Outlook

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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.

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Emil Sanamyan is a political science student at the University of
Arizona.

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