On May 30 Armenia is holding its second postcommunist parliamentary election. The exercise will be closely watched internationally in light of the country’s record of rigged elections, as illustrated by those for parliament in 1995 and those for the president in 1996 and (to a lesser extent) 1998. The 1999 parliamentary election differs from preceding ones in that the clear-cut polarization of government and opposition has been replaced by a greater number of parties and groups in both camps, with yet more parties sitting on the fence.
A peculiar, nondemocratic trend has emerged with the direct involvement of the Defense Ministry, the Internal Affairs and National Security Ministry, and the Karabakh Defense Ministry in the electoral campaign. Each of these ministries is sponsoring political parties under the personal control of the three ministers–Vazgen Sarkisian, Serge Sarkisian and Samvel Babaian, respectively. Those parties seem well financed and are believed to control sections of the local administrations in various parts of Armenia. The two Sarkisians (who are not related) are believed to have fallen out and become rivals. Babaian has signaled discontent with both of them, and revealed his ambitions to stage a political career in Armenia proper. Babaian is a Karabakh Armenian, but this should not prove a major impediment. Serge Sarkisian and President Robert Kocharian are also Karabakh Armenians.
The Miasnutiun [Unity] bloc is favored to win a plurality of the votes in the upcoming election. Created by the Republican Party and the People’s Party earlier this year, the bloc is said to have been put together with the encouragement of Russia’s then-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to provide an organized internal political basis for Armenia’s alliance with Russia.
The Republican Party (RP), headed by Vazgen Sarkisian, was created last year as the country’s new party of power following the ouster of then-president Levon Ter-Petrosian in a “velvet coup” by the Russian-oriented Sarkisians, who helped install Kocharian as president. The RP has evolved from the fusion of three elements: first, Sarkisian’s military and paramilitary apparatus, including the Yerkrapah [Country Defender] organization of armed veterans of the Karabakh war from Armenia proper; second, a mass of defectors from the Armenian Pan-National Union, the ruling party from 1990 to 1998, which splintered when Ter-Petrosian fell from power; and, third, the original Republican Party, a small and genuinely nationalist–not pro-Russian–party which allowed itself to be absorbed into Vazgen Sarkisian’s party in 1998, bequeathing its name but not much more to the new juggernaut party.
The People’s Party is led by Karen Demirchian, first secretary of the Armenian Communist Party Central Committee from 1974-1988. At a time of economic distress such as currently traversed by Armenia, collective memory associates Demirchian with the tranquillity and relative prosperity experienced by the republic during the late Soviet period. By all accounts Demirchian is by far the most popular Armenian politician today. He was officially credited with having garnered 40 percent of the vote in the 1998 presidential election, to Kocharian’s 60 percent. Most observers considered that official score to have been rigged in Kocharian’s favor by the authorities. Although he considered himself cheated of victory, Demirchian tacitly accepted that outcome, bided his time and ultimately went for a deal with the party of power–Sarkisian’s Republicans.
The Miasnutiun bloc makes for a unique combination of strength: control over local administrations in many parts of Armenia by Vazgen Sarkisian’s apparatus and the charisma of Demirchian, the country’s top vote-getter in its own right. For these reasons, most observers project the Miasnutiun bloc as the winner–though not in absolute terms–and predict the emergence of a stronger and more broadly based party of power following these parliamentary elections (based on electoral campaign coverage by the Noyan Tapan, Snark, and Armenpress agencies and press monitoring).
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