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Presidential Elections in Armenia: Candidates and Issues

By Hratch Tchilingirian

The presidential election on March 16 will bring to power Armenia's
second leader since independence.  Prospects for democracy, political
stability and international credibility depend on the holding of a
free, fair and non- violent poll.

After flawed parliamentary elections in 1995 and Ter-Petrosian's
disputed victory in the 1996 presidential contest, the conduct of the
current poll will shape domestic prospects for democratic politics and
international confidence in Armenia's stable democratic development.
Acting President and Prime Minister Robert Kocharian has pledged to
ensure that the election is lawful and fair.  In particular, he has
assured officials of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in
Europe -- which will monitor the poll, along with other international
bodies -- and the United States that neither the army nor interior
ministry forces will intervene.  The defense and interior ministers
have given similar assurances.  On March 7, Kocharian and four other
candidates -- including former prime minister Vazgen Manukian, who
claims to be the rightful victor of the 1996 contest -- signed a
declaration committing candidates to making every effort to ensure a
free and fair election.

However, several opposition candidates declined to sign the document,
claiming that local government and police officials are helping
Kocharian 's campaign.  Suspicions grew when two of Manukian's
campaign staff were attacked on March 8.  The Kocharian campaign
rejected accusations from a Manukian aide that Kocharian supporters
were responsible.  Several suspects have been arrested.


The Candidates

The Central Electoral Commission has registered twelve presidential
candidates, after each presented the 25,000 signatures required to
stand.  Three appear likely to receive a substantial share of the
first-round vote:

1.  Kocharian.  A native of Nagorno-Karabakh, where he was president
from 1996, Kocharian became prime minister of Armenia in March.
Despite doubts over Kocharian's citizenship and apparent failure to
meet residency requirements, the Central Electoral Commission has
approved his candidacy, on the basis of precedent, current legal
practice and contested constitutional provisions.  A number of, mostly
centre-left, parties and organisations have endorsed Kocharian,
including the formerly banned Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which
Kocharian reinstated immediately after Ter-Petrosian's resignation.
Kocharian can point to his demonstrated leadership abilities and some
economic achievements during his year in office.  He is also seen as
the key figure behind the creation of 'national solidarity' on
Nagorno-Karabakh and the exit of the unpopular Ter-Petrosian.

2.  Manukian.  The chair of the opposition National Democratic Union
was prime minister in 1990-91 and defense minister in 1992-93 but
resigned from both posts over policy differences with Ter-Petrosian.
He received 41% of the vote in the 1996 presidential election.

3.  Karen Demirchian.  First Secretary of the Communist Party of
Armenia from 1974 to 1988, Demirchian has since lived in relative
obscurity as director of one of Armenia's largest state enterprises.
He was nominated by the Socialist Party but declines to be placed
clearly on the political spectrum. (The Communist Party has nominated
its own candidate, party leader Sergei Badalian.)  Demirchian's
popularity has risen rapidly since he launched his surprise candidacy.
He is likely to receive the support of those nostalgic for the higher
living standards of the late Soviet era. He may also be seen as a
leader with the stature of the Transcaucasus's other former
Brezhnev-era republican Communist Party secretaries, Azerbaijani
President Heydar Aliyev and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.


Presidential issues

The economy and Nagorno-Karabakh have been the two most prominent
campaign issues and will be the most significant challenges facing the
new president:

1.  Economy.  Despite some success in economic stabilization and
institutional reform, bilateral and multilateral aid and diaspora
financial inflows remain vital.  Popular frustration with high levels
of poverty and inequality is considerable.  According to government
figures, over 600,000 people have left Armenia since 1991; other
estimates put the figure at close to 1 million - nearly 25% of the
population.

Kocharian and Manukian have pledged to strengthen industry, create
jobs and more favorable investment conditions and crack down on the
black market and tax evasion.  They have also promised to increase
wages, reform the social security and pension systems and introduce
free healthcare for the most vulnerable groups.

However, Kocharian argues that improved economic policies and
anti-corruption reforms will alone ensure satisfactory economic
performance, without movement on Nagorno-Karabakh. Given the economic
damage inflicted by the Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades, this is
doubtful, and Manukian does not share Kocharian's view.  His 1996
campaign pledges also suggest that Manukian's plans for industrial
development may involve greater protectionism and subsidization and
more dependent economic ties with Russia.  Kocharian probably offers
the greatest prospect of continuity in market reforms, and he is
largely backed by the business community.  For his part, Demirchian
promises to promote the transition to a market economy, albeit a
'state-regulated' one; his experience in the enterprise sector gives
some credibility to his reformist pledges.

2.  Nagorno-Karabakh.  With the marginalisation of Ter-Petrosian and
his party, a broad consensus has emerged on Nagorno-Karabakh, based on
the Karabakh Armenians' right to self-determination.  In order to
remain in contention, most political forces thus oppose the 'phased'
proposals of the Minsk Group -- which Ter-Petrosian came to support --
and instead back a 'package' solution, whereby all issues are
discussed simultaneously.

Kocharian , whose views on Nagorno-Karabakh are the clearest of the
three leading contenders, takes this position.  He has promised to
seek international recognition of the Karabakh Armenians' rights,
although he has also said that there is room for compromise within the
Minsk Group framework.  Manukian has called for a continuation of the
peace process within the Minsk Group framework and warned against too
hard a position on Nagorno-Karabakh.  His stance has drawn criticism
for being too passive.  Demirchian's position is the least clear,
although he has ruled out a return to Nagorno-Karabakh's
pre-independence declaration status.  He also believes that his long
acquaintance with Aliyev could help to expedite a resolution.  The
challenge for the new president will be to balance domestic popular
support for the Karabakh Armenians against international pressures for
a resolution of the conflict.

In addition to these issues, Manukian and Kocharian have promised to
amend the constitution to make Armenia a parliamentary republic.
Manukian has also promised fresh parliamentary elections.


Outlook

It has been widely speculated that Demirchian's candidacy is aimed
mainly at taking votes from Manukian and other challengers to
Kocharian, thus helping the prime minister to victory.  However,
Demirchian has denied reports of a secret pact with Kocharian.
Moreover, Demirchian's current strong position marks the emergence of
a new political heavyweight to challenge Kocharian and Manukian, whose
confidence may prove premature.  None of the candidates is likely to
secure the 50% support needed to win on the first ballot and a run-
off on March 30 between two of Kocharian, Manukian and Demirchian thus
appears likely.

Whoever wins, he is likely to make more serious efforts to consolidate
Armenia's political forces.  The population is too small to support
the 59 political parties and organisations currently in existence, and
no party or movement has been able to create a large popular base.
Most presidential candidates have expressed an intention to form an
'inclusive' government.

The upcoming election marks Armenia's first major leadership and
political change since 1991.  In the short term, Armenia's domestic
and international credibility depends on a fair, free and transparent
election. In the long term, the improvement of socio-economic
conditions, strong economic development, and the resolution of the
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will be the most difficult challenges facing
the new president in Armenia.

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Hratch Tchilingirian is  a researcher in  sociology, at  the London
School of Economics and Political Science.

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