Armenia Gears Up for "Least Interesting" Ballot
Armenians have the day off on February 18 for the country’s presidential election, but many see little to celebrate in the inevitable re-election of Serzh Sargsyan.
Of the seven candidates standing for election, Sargsyan has a rating of 68 per cent, according to the Gallup polling company.
Next comes Raffi Hovhannisyan, a former foreign minister who grew up in the United States and who has been travelling the country by bus on an American-style campaign, but is lagging far behind at 24 per cent.
Hovhannisyan’s Heritage party is the smallest faction in parliament. But it is nevertheless the only opposition party fielding a candidate for the presidency.
The three main opposition parties have ruled themselves out.
Prosperous Armenia leader Gagik Tsarukyan, seen as a strong challenger, held a closed-door meeting with President Sargsyan shortly before an announcement that he would not be running.
Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the country’s first president after it became independent and now leader of the Armenian National Congress, ANC, said he felt too old to take part, having turned 68 in January. The ANC then announced it was boycotting the poll. The third major opposition force, Dashnaktsutyun said the poll would be rigged and it would not be taking part.
The Gallup poll does not suggest a strong showing by the remaining five candidates – former prime minister Hrant Bagratyan; Andrias Ghukasyan, director of a Yerevan radio station; Paruyr Hayrikyan, a Soviet-era dissident who now leads the Union for National Self-Determination; Arman Melikyan, a former foreign minister of Nagorny Karabakh; and Vardan Sedrakyan, a specialist in epic poetry.
“The current president does have a high rating compared with the other candidates,” Armen Badalyan, a political expert from the Centre for Political Studies, said. “But you have to remember that parties like the Armenian National Congress, Dashnaktsutyun and Prosperous Armenia decided not to take part in the election. And you can’t say that the candidates running against Sargsyan have much political clout.”
Levon Zurabyan, who heads the ANC faction in parliament, predicted that the turnout in this election would hit at a record low.
“I think everyone realises that the battle between the candidates is just a formality. Not one of the candidates standing against Sargsyan is capable of effecting a change of government,” he told reporters.
Officials dismiss such criticisms and insist this vote will be the fairest in Armenia’s history.
“These people who say there’s no competition in this election – who stopped them taking part?” Sargsyan asked at a meeting with voters in Yerevan. “If they won’t take part, they must have their own reasons. And who’s to blame for that – us? Have we blocked their way somehow? Have we sent them to prison? Are they under house arrest? Have we intimidated them? Are their candidates scared?”
Much of the recent discussion around the election campaign has focused on an attack on Paruyr Hayrikyan, who was shot on January 31. He was operated on and was able to leave hospital after three days.
Hayrikyan, who spent 17 years in Soviet prisons because he campaigned for an independent Armenia, was quick to blame “Russian imperialist forces” for the attack, saying his pro-western views were a threat to some groups in Moscow. The Armenian authorities have arrested two suspects in the case.
The attack placed Hayrikyan at the centre of attention for a while, but does not seem to have improved his chances.
For a while, it seemed that the attack on him might delay the election. Armenia’s constitution says that if a candidate cannot campaign for reasons beyond his control, the vote will be deferred for two weeks. Hayrikyan vacillated over whether to apply for a deferral, initially saying he would not do so, then changing his mind, and then changing it back again.
Some candidates have dismissed the election as fraudulent, even though they are still standing.
“It’s already clear that the election won’t free or fair,” Hovhannisyan told voters in Echmiadzin. “But this doesn’t mean I am abandoning the fight.”
Similar views have been expressed by Bagratyan and Melikyan. Ghukasyan, meanwhile, has been staging a hunger strike for the last month with the so far unsuccessful aim of “arousing civil disobedience”.
Armenian businessmen are less than confident that the election will be followed by action to turn around the country’s depressed economy.
“I can’t say with any certainty that an election like this can resolve the serious problems facing the state – emigration, corruption and monopolies,” Gagik Marakyan, head of the Union of Employers, said. “ We need reforms.”
Official statistics indicate that a third of the population lives in poverty, while 180,000 people –six per cent of the population – have emigrated in the last five years. The International Monetary Fund says that of the three states in the south Caucasus, only Armenia has failed to climb back to the economic level it was at prior to the 2008 global financial crisis.
On the positive side, Karen Khocharyan, a political analyst and commentator on the privately owned Armenia television station, sees some grounds for optimism.
“Democracy isn’t going to emerge in Armenia after this most uninteresting of elections, but there are some positive signs – that’s a fact. Look at the media, for example. For the first time, television channels have become accessible to the opposition.”
Vahe Harutyunyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.