Armenia is due to hold a pre-term presidential election on March 16, necessitated by the February 3 ouster of President Levon Ter-Petrosian. In that office since 1991, Ter-Petrosian won a second five-year term through a rigged election in September 1996. He was forced out last month, not because of that fraud, but because the military and security apparatus that had guaranteed his power turned against him when he called for concessions to Azerbaijan at the expense of Karabakh. The defense and security leaders also ensured that Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, a Karabakh native and not the next in line to fill a presidential vacancy, nevertheless became acting president while retaining the premiership.
Kocharian, the apparent front-runner in the presidential race, faces two strong challengers — Vazgen Manukian and Karen Demirchian — who may force him into a runoff, to be held on March 30, if one is necessary. No fewer than twelve candidates are in the running, about half of whom represent serious political forces with valid reasons for entering the race despite the certainty of losing. This group of candidates has at least three goals. First, to benefit from the media exposure and to expand their base of support, after having been marginalized during the last years of Ter-Petrosian’s tenure. Second, to negotiate runoff endorsements in return for influence in the post-election government. Third, to prepare for future parliamentary elections. The imminent presidential election, therefore, offers a rare opportunity to review the spectrum of Armenia’s political forces.
The Armenian Pan-National Movement, in power with Ter-Petrosian from 1990 to February 1998, denies having turned into an opposition party. Neither has it endorsed any presidential candidate. Unofficially, however, the APNM seems to use its remaining levers of influence to support anti-Kocharian candidates. Although weakened by massive defections, the APNM is still to be reckoned with as a political factor. But this may well change if a Kocharian administration decides to prosecute former APNM officials and their business proteges for corruption.
The Hairenik party, founded only last week, seems to be positioning itself as the most pro-Western of Armenia’s political forces. It advocates an open democratic political system, "liberal values" in the European sense of that term and active cooperation with NATO — a courageous position in a country officially allied with Russia. Led by Eduard Yeghorian, who left the APNM with a group of protesting deputies after the 1996 election, Hairenik is not endorsing any presidential candidate. It has, instead, decided to look beyond this race to the next parliamentary election. (This preview, to be continued in tomorrow’s issue of the Monitor, draws on recent reporting by the Armenian media).
Kocharian the Apparent Front-runner.