Campaigning for Armenia’s upcoming presidential election officially kicked off on January 21 and is turning nasty amid an intensifying war of words between the country’s current and former leaders. Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian, outgoing President Robert Kocharian’s favored successor, and his most outspoken challenger, former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, have traded bitter recriminations, upping the stakes in their presidential bids.
As many as nine candidates were registered by the government-controlled Central Election Commission (CEC) to contest the election scheduled for February 19. But only four of them stand a chance of winning a large number of votes. Apart from Sarkisian and Ter-Petrosian, those are Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a junior partner in the ruling coalition, and Artur Baghdasarian, the leader of the opposition Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party.
The absence of credible opinion polls makes it extremely difficult to gauge the electoral chances of these candidates. Besides, popularity does not necessarily translate into votes in a country with an increasingly entrenched culture of electoral fraud. Sarkisian, for example, is widely regarded as the election favorite primarily because of his control of many government and law-enforcement bodies that the ruling regime has used for pressuring and intimidating public-sector employees and other voters, especially those living in rural areas. It is these so-called administrative resources, coupled with nationwide vote buying, that earned Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK) a landslide victory in Armenia’s May 2007 parliamentary elections.
Sarkisian and the HHK are widely expected to rely on their government levers this time as well. There are already reports of government loyalists again visiting people across the country and asking for their passport data, presumably to bribe them or have somebody else vote in their place. And as was the case in the run-up to the 2007 polls, Armenia’s major television stations, virtually all of them loyal to the government, are heavily propagandizing for the Sarkisian campaign.
Of all other presidential candidates, Ter-Petrosian is facing the most hostile and biased TV coverage, a further indication that Kocharian and Sarkisian regard him as their most dangerous opponent. Local commentators believe this perception stems from Ter-Petrosian’s enduring charisma and presumed ability to spread discord within the hitherto monolithic state apparatus. His aides claim privately that they have many secret sympathizers within government and law-enforcement bodies who are ready to defy government orders to rig the vote and/or use force against opposition demonstrators.
“He has a very powerful personality and a lot of experience,” Aleksandr Iskandarian, director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Media Institute, said of the ex-president in an interview with the opposition daily Haykakan Zhamanak published on January 26. “But can such an individual break the state apparatus? Yes, he can. Is it easy to do that? No, it’s extremely hard.”
The first days of the election campaign showed that Ter-Petrosian’s tactic is to try to tap into popular discontent with Sarkisian and Kocharian by stepping up his harsh verbal attacks on their “kleptocratic regime.” Campaigning in the central Kotayk region on January 24, he implicitly accused the two Karabakh-born men of masterminding the 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament which left its speaker, Karen Demirchian, then-prime minister Vazgen Sarkisian (no relation to Serge) and six other officials dead. Ter-Petrosian, who returned to active politics last September after almost a decade of self-imposed retirement, also alleged that Serge Sarkisian’s victory in the presidential ballot would lead to another Armenian-Azerbaijani war.
Sarkisian shot back the next day at a campaign rally in Yerevan, saying that Ter-Petrosian is filled with “malice” and discrediting his own country (Armenian Public Television, January 26). The Armenian prime minister went further at a similar gathering in the capital the next day, promising to “sort out all foul-mouthed Satans” after the election (RFE/RL Armenian service, January 26). Kocharian, for his part, renewed his allegations that his predecessor is keen to “surrender Karabakh” to Azerbaijan and turn Armenia into “Turkey’s younger brother.” “I didn’t know that the first president could depreciate himself to such an extent,” Kocharian said in televised remarks. (Armenian Public Television, January 26).
Ever since winning independence from Moscow, Armenia has not had a leadership change as a result of elections, and the upcoming ballot will hardly be an exception to this rule, given the current Armenian leadership’s dismal electoral record. Few believe that Sarkisian and Kocharian, who reportedly wants to serve as prime minister after completing his second and final term as president, would step down if they lose the presidential race. Ter-Petrosian’s comeback and grave accusations have made the stakes even higher for them. They now risk losing not only power and the resulting perks but their very freedom.
Echoing statements by senior members of the HHK, Kocharian implied earlier in January that he thinks Sarkisian is popular enough to win outright in the first round of voting. Observers agree that this would be very difficult to achieve without the kind of blatant ballot stuffing that characterized the last Armenian presidential election held in 2003 and prompted strong Western criticism. A run-off vote pitting Sarkisian against an opposition candidate other than Ter-Petrosian is a more likely government scenario.
The extent of Ter-Petrosian’s popularity is another unanswered question. The 63-year-old former scholar’s campaign trips outside Yerevan have so far not met with the kind of popular enthusiasm that had been generated by Stepan Demirchian, the assassinated parliament speaker’s son and Kocharian’s main challenger in the 2003 election. But nor has he faced overt hostility, which many Armenians were thought to have developed toward their former leader because of severe hardship they had suffered during his 1991-98 rule. In fact, Ter-Petrosian’s recent rallies in Yerevan, attended by between 10,000 and 20,000 people, were the biggest Armenian opposition gatherings since 2003. The most recent of those rallies, staged on January 22, attracted approximately as many people as the previous ones despite an unusually cold weather. Ter-Petrosian has indicated that he will urge supporters to take to the streets in even larger numbers if the approaching election is rigged.
The authorities in Yerevan successfully quelled a campaign of street protests launched by the Armenian opposition in spring 2004 in an attempt to replicate the 2003 Rose Revolution in neighboring Georgia. All the signs are that they will soon have to deal with larger crowds led by a shrewder and more formidable figure.