Three of Kocharian’s challengers are capable to directly and substantially influence the ultimate outcome of the election.
Karen Demirchian, 66, nominated by the small Socialist party, was the first secretary of the Armenian Communist party’s Central Committee from 1974 to 1988. He was swept from that post when he failed to support — and sought to defuse — demands for the unification of Armenia and Karabakh. A trained electrical engineer, Demirchian has in recent years run the state-owned Haielektro factory in Yerevan, a rare success story. His return to politics may have changed the nature of this campaign.
Demirchian is the beneficiary of a surge of nostalgia for the seeming stability and relative economic security of the late Soviet era, when he led Armenia. His campaign strategy relies primarily on that myth and only secondarily on his image. Demirchian tends to avoid media exposure, offers the vaguest of programs, and casts himself as a pragmatic business executive, experienced with power and untainted by the disasters of the last ten years. He openly suggests that his Soviet-era acquaintance with Azerbaijan’s president Haidar Aliev might enable them to negotiate directly a solution to the Karabakh conflict.
Demirchian is not the candidate of Communist or even Socialist restoration, nor of attempting to reconstitute the USSR. Those are goals of the Armenian Communist party’s own presidential candidate, Sergei Badalian, who has been endorsed by Russia’s top Communist leaders on Armenian television. Badalian bitterly attacks Demirchian from the left as Communist voters switch to Demirchian, adding to the latter’s strength. Most observers expect Demirchian to make it into the runoff, probably against Kocharian, and perhaps to conclude a power-sharing deal with the latter.
Vazgen Manukian, 52, is the candidate of his National-Democratic Union. A former lecturer in mathematics at Yerevan University and a co-founder of the Karabakh movement, Manukian was successively prime minister and defense minister in 1990-1993, and won praise for his performance during the Karabakh war. He resigned from government over differences with then-President Levon Ter-Petrosian. Manukian was the candidate of the joint opposition in the 1996 presidential election, in which Ter-Petrosian was declared the winner by a slight margin amid evidence of fraud. Manukian considered himself president-elect and led mass protest demonstrations, one of which turned violent and gave the authorities a pretext for cracking down on the opposition.
In the current campaign, Manukian calls for turning Armenia from a presidential into a parliamentary republic and for primary reliance on Russia in foreign policy and economic relations. Manukian depicts Kocharian and his main supporters as mere legatees of Ter-Petrosian’s spoils system. Whether because of the 1996 trauma or as a tactic, the Manukian campaign constantly accuses the state authorities of sabotaging Manukian’s candidacy and supporting the Kocharian campaign. In one serious incident, which attracted international attention, Manukian representatives were in fact badly beaten in a provincial town — presumably by supporters of the authorities.
Dogged by a loser’s image and disadvantaged by his own acrimonious rhetoric, Manukian has come to be regarded by many as a divisive figure bent on revanche. He should do fairly well in the first round, but is unlikely to win the election. In 1996 he had the entire opposition behind him, but this time around he will only draw on his own electorate, which is loyal and stable but relatively limited. In the event of a runoff without Manukian, his sizable electorate — and hence his endorsement — should provide the critical mass to the winner.
Parvir Hayrikian, 49, is the candidate of the Self-Determination Union, of which he is the leader. Considered the founding father of the national movement in Soviet Armenia, Hayrikian spent a total of eighteen years in Soviet prisons, camps and Siberian exile. A parliamentary deputy since 1990, Hayrikian was the runner-up to Ter-Petrosian in the 1991 presidential election. He withdrew from the race in favor of Manukian in the 1996 election. In the present election, Hayrikian calls, as he previously has, for decentralization of government, reducing presidential powers and correspondingly increasing those of parliament, supremacy of the law in a country he describes as prey to arbitrary power, close cooperation with European institutions in democratizing Armenia, and assertion of historic Armenian claims to areas in Turkey and Azerbaijan — a position shared by Kocharian’s Dashnak allies.
Despite that nationalist goal, Hayrikian is justifiably considered one of the few consistent democrats among Armenia’s top politicians. SDU is a small party with an aura of idealism about it, devoid of support in the political and business elite, and held together mainly by Hayrikian’s personal prestige. That factor increases the value of Hayrikian’s endorsement in the likely runoff. That endorsement should weigh more than his actual first-round score, which may be modest in a field split among so many candidates. (These profiles draw on Armenian media coverage of the presidential campaign).
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