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ELECTORAL DYNAMICS IN ARMENIA: RUNOFF LOOKS INEVITABLE NOW

Armenian News Network / Groong
February 17, 2003


INITIAL OBSERVATIONS

The electoral season in Armenia, unlike in the United States, does not
kick off officially until a month prior to the elections. The candidates,
naturally, begin campaigning 'unofficially' long before the permitted
beginning date of the campaign, but just as in the prior Presidential
elections, the campaigning season did not start in earnest until
January 21. The campaigning has to cease at midnight on February 17,
and the Armenian voters will take a day off before heading to the
polls on February 19.

The short duration of the electoral season in Armenia results in
greater intensity and dynamics. Three months prior to the Election Day
it looked plausible for the incumbent President to coast to victory on
February 19, if only because of the weak and fragmented opposition
and, arguably, the enormous 'incumbent advantage' of engaging the
traditional political machines around the country.

In order to secure victory on the Election Day, the presidential
candidate has to secure more than 50% of the total vote; if no
candidate receives more than 50%, a run-off is scheduled two weeks
later. Armenian citizens, like voters in most transition countries,
deliver a huge protest vote, and the strategy for an opposition
candidate is to transform into a credible, charismatic alternative to
the incumbent. This accounted for the successful performance of Vazgen
Manukian and Karen Demirchian in the 1996 and 1998 Presidential
elections, respectively.


THE ELECTION IS THE INCUMBENT'S TO LOSE

It is therefore to the incumbent's advantage that the opposition
suffers from a credibility or competency gap. With no real alternative
to the incumbent, the Armenian voters are likely to either vote for
a continuation of the status quo (don't-change-horses-midstream
philosophy), or boycott the electoral process by not voting or voting
'against all' candidates. The suppressed turnout benefits the
incumbent if he can get out the vote in his favor, and voting 'against
all' also favors the winner of the elections since only votes cast in
favor of the candidates make a difference.

In December 2002, the electoral developments seemed to favor President
Robert Kocharian. Having announced his plans for run for a second term
in office in September 2001, Kocharian secured all bases necessary for
an incumbent President's re-election in Armenia: he co-opted the
support of the local political bosses and Prime Minister Andranik
Margarian's fractured and faceless parliamentary majority, tightened
his grip on the television broadcasting and media, secured the
financing of his campaign from friendly businesses and made overtures
to such diverse Diasporan political and economic interest groups as
the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the Armenian Union of
Russia. The local elections in October 2002 saw the allies of the
President or Prime Minister secure their hold over cities and villages
of Armenia; the opposition seemed largely disinclined or disinterested
in running local governments.

Defense Minister Serge Sargsian, who is arguably the second most
powerful person in Armenia and has good connections to major corporate
interests, took an extended leave of absence to manage Kocharian's
campaign. Most observers noted, some with delight, others with
sadness, a certain inevitability in Kocharian's re-election. The only
major embarrassment for Kocharian's campaign was the assassination of
Armenian Public Television President Tigran Naghdalian on December 28,
2002, which revived memories of a chain of unsolved murders and
assassinations in Armenia since 1998. President Kocharian had to
delegate a trusted aide, Alexan Harutyunian, to run the Public
Television, the main media outlet in Armenia.

Moreover, opposition candidates showed no indication of maturing into
credible alternatives. In addition to the incumbent, fourteen
candidates announced their intention to run, of whom eleven belonged
to the parties that had earlier formed a 'Group of 16,' ostensibly for
the purpose of selecting a joint opposition candidate. The opposition's
challenge seemed insurmountable, especially because the New Year and
Christmas holidays, with a two-week eating-and-drinking truce (also
observed by all print media) would intervene. Eventually, with three
candidates dropping out and one - Raffi Hovhannisian - disqualified on
a technicality, only eleven candidates remained on the ballot,
including eight opposition contenders. Even President Kocharian
deplored, if somewhat disingenuously, the lack of unity among
opposition.


UNPREDICTABLE ELECTORAL DYNAMICS

Still, the first three weeks of campaigning have again confirmed the
unpredictable nature of the Armenian politics and showed that the
popularity of a unity opposition candidate does not necessarily equal
the sum of all the opposition candidates' votes and ratings. At least
three opposition candidates, Stepan Demirchian, Artashes Geghamian and
Aram Karapetian, and to a lesser degree, Vazgen Manukian have mounted
well-organized, serious and well-funded campaigns. Other opposition
candidates, Vladimir Darbinian, Garnik Margarian, Aram Z. Sargsian,
Aram G. Sargsian seemed content to play second fiddle to one of the
candidates, and in fact three of them dropped out of the race or
endorsed other candidates by February 14.

In fact, it now appears that the decision of many of the opposition
candidates to contest the vote was made at least partially so that
they could be allocated free airtime on the Public Television, which
otherwise restricted access to the opposition, to criticize Kocharian
by proxy. In this, they repeated the tactics of 1996 Presidential
election. It is also possible that the opposition alliances ran
several candidates as a hedge against unforeseen developments such as
natural or unnatural accidents during the campaign. But with only five
days to go before the elections, it has become increasingly obvious
that the February 19 vote will result in a run-off between Kocharian
and one of two opposition candidates: Artashes Geghamian or Stepan
Demirchian.

By relentless campaigning, the four main opposition candidates managed
to tap into a huge reservoir of popular angst and discontent, which is
caused primarily by the social and economic situation in Armenia.
Despite the impressive economic statistics, visible progress in
infrastructure development in Yerevan and around the country, more
than 51% of the Armenian population, by official count, remain
vulnerable and more than half of them are desperately poor. The
permanent or temporary migration of nearly 800 thousand Armenians
since 1991 (the 2001 census set Armenia's population at 2.95 million)
has inflicted deep psychological and social wounds on society. It is
fair to say that the larger part of the Armenian electorate is
low-income, educated, disappointed and disenchanted with the
government - any government in power - and this translates into a
large protest vote turnout at every election.

The Kocharian team's tactics of 2003 are borrowed from the 1996
re-election campaign of president Levon Ter-Petrossian, with a behemoth
organization, a local campaign branch on every street corner,
incompetent and excessive media coverage that backfires, and rapid
expenditure of the incumbent's significant political capital without
proper oversight. The result, according to most third-party observers,
is heavy-handed approach in localities, ranging from petty harassment
to serious incidents, like the February 4 scuttling of opposition
candidate rallies in Artashat.

The events in Artashat led to concerns about the Kocharian campaign's
lack of control over the situation in the regions in exchange for
securing a first round victory at all costs. The petty fascination
with the importance of a first-round victory betrays not only lack of
proper understanding of democratic mechanisms but also total loss of
reaction to an increasingly strong international criticism. Unlike in
1996 and 1998, the international community, including the United
States, OSCE and Council of Europe members, have a priori put Armenia
on notice about the imperative of a free, democratic and fair
electoral process in Armenia. U.S. Ambassador to Armenia sounded a
stern warning by saying, essentially, that the international community
would not support or recognize an electoral outcome other than a
perfect, free and fair vote. With major geopolitical dynamics and
regional challenges looming on the horizon in the near future, Armenia
can ill afford to have a President challen!  ged not only
domestically, but lso internationally.


RUN-OFF LOOKS INEVITABLE

All indications are that at least some people in Kocharian's team have
enough common-sense to understand that a run-off is unavoidable at
this point since a first-round victory would require an extraordinary
(and extracurricular) effort and result in the electoral victory
dividends being split among too many interest groups. In general, a
second round victory is more feasible and would substantially reduce
the ire of the international and domestic observers. It would also be
easier to deal with one defeated opponent than with eight
simultaneously.

Out of the four major opposition candidates, Aram Karapetian and
Vazgen Manukian failed to achieve escape velocity to propel them into
a run-off. By contrast, Demirchian and Geghamian both have positioned
themselves as possible contenders in the run-off, and are trying to
achieve a higher orbit on February 19. It is highly doubtful that Aram
Karapetian himself believed in his victory; his campaign probably
aimed to introduce him to the voters well in advance of the
parliamentary elections in May. Vazgen Manukian's main purpose in
running was to establish his relevancy despite the multiple splits of
his party, the National Democratic Union, and confirm his status as
the pre-eminent statesman of Armenian politics. (Note: out of four
top leaders of the NDU in 1998, one supports Kocharian and two have
endorsed Demirchian).

Geghamian, who has more experience under his belt, is also a formidable
campaigner and demagogue, and his campaign is well-financed and
organized. A representative of the Soviet nomenclature, Geghamian's
peak in politics was in 1990 when he was Mayor of Yerevan under
arguably most difficult circumstances. Since independence he has tried
his hand, seemingly with success, at everything from business to
parliamentary activities. Having secured an important endorsement from
the Communist Party leader, he will benefit from this important
electoral base. Geghamian's campaign also received an important boost
from an unlikely source: the Public Television. A smooth talker and a
smart demagogue, he easily overpowered, in the eyes of most Armenian
voters, Kocharian's campaign manager Serge Sargsian in their February
1 televised public debate.

The one-sided results of the debate led to conspiracy theories of
behind-the-scene deals between Geghamian and Kocharian among many
Demirchian supporters and third-party observers. This is based on
Geghamian's prior track record but is largely an ungrounded accusation
since any deal between the two before the elections will indicate to
Geghamian (and the rest of the public) the weakness of the Kocharian
campaign. With the Armenian presidential regime being what it is, an
essentially authoritarian system based on fear of discipline, any
indication or admission of weakness would undermine its authority very
quickly.

This does not preclude the possibility of a deal between Geghamian and
Kocharian after the run-off: if Geghamian does not challenge the
outcome of the election, Kocharian's critics will be silenced. In
return, Geghamian can receive a government position or assurances of
support during the upcoming Parliamentary election in May. This is in
fact what happened in 1998: Karen Demirchian (Stepan's father) proved
pliable to a compromise, which was negotiated by Vazgen Sargsian
personally (and would serve as a catalyst for the formation of the
Unity alliance between the two a year later). Demirchian Sr. did not
challenge Kocharian's victory (but would not endorse it either) so
Kocharian's critics could not challenge it either. In turn, he would
get a chance to build his party unhindered and go to the parliamentary
elections.

Given the tragic way in which Karen Demirchian's and Vazgen Sargsian's
political careers ended and the long shadow of the October 27 case,
Stepan Demirchian and his rump People's Party (AZhM) would be far less
likely to agree to a compromise with Kocharian. A far better strategy
for Demirchian would be not to negotiate. Since the parliamentary
elections are only three months away, the People's Party would rather
have an incumbent president with a stigma of illegitimacy and
themselves with a status of martyrs, which could translate into a
parliamentary majority or plurality. Demirchian has invested a lot of
money and effort into his campaign. His campaign stops reveal good
organization and work by advance people. Since he has essentially a
clean slate, the average voter cannot associate him with any of the
negative (or positive) accomplishments of the post-independence era.
The only association he can generate is that with his father, and he
masterfully exploits it. His own personable and accommodating qualities
resulted in his being endorsed by, among others, former Prime Minister
Aram Z. Sargsian, former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovhannisian, members
of NDU splinter groups, the Democratic party and the like.


FORK AT THE ROAD

The Kocharian campaign, essentially, is facing an important choice
that will affect the course of Armenia's future for years to come.
First, they need to recognize that an unfair victory in the first
round cannot be forced down the throats of the people of Armenia and
the international community. The Kocharian campaign and Robert
Kocharian himself are rational enough to realize this. In a run-off,
there can be two choices: refocus their campaign and achieve a solid
and fair victory over the opponent, or attempt to reach a clandestine
deal with the opponent at the expense of the democratic electoral
process.

If the intensity and ferocity of the Kocharian campaign are reduced
markedly to the point where it is able again to communicate directly
with the voters, it is possible to conduct an electoral campaign with
dignity and style, and draw people's attention to the personal
qualities and achievements of President Kocharian vis-a-vis either
Geghamian or Demirchian.

It is a common refrain for any incumbent government in transition
countries to claim that the voters are not reliable, responsible or
sensible enough to choose a good candidate on their own, and such
sentiments are not unknown for a succession of Armenian governments
since 1995. They are misinformed; the people of Armenia are mature
enough to take an objective look at the candidates and make an
informed choice. By most accounts, candidate Kocharian does not stand
to lose in this comparison and is able to face his electorate on his
own, if he shakes down his campaign after the first round and assumes
personal responsibility for his re-election.

Alternatively, his campaign could buy out the contender in the
run-off, and if one of the candidates is less likely to sell out, to
help push another into the run-off. The recent and sudden improvement
in Geghamian's coverage on Public Television could be a sign of a
collision of interests between the Geghamian and Kocharian campaigns.
The loser in this scenario is not Stepan Demirchian but, rather, the
people of Armenia who will once again be denied their right to choose
their government.

In the absence of credible polling data on the elections, it is
difficult to assess which scenario holds true. Only the election
results on February 19 will confirm or dispel the fears in this
report.

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