Presidential Election in Armenia Suffers Lack of Choices

Armenians will go to the polls later this month to elect a new president, but almost everybody on both sides of the political spectrum agrees that the result is not in doubt.  President Serzh Sargsyan is widely expected to cruise to re-election; a fact that most observers say was determined in December of last year with the decision of two of his strongest potential challengers to sit the election out.

Eight candidates are registered in the election, including Sargsyan, and among them are former prime minister Hrant Bagratian and former foreign minister Raffi Hovannisian.  Together, they are expected to make up the bulk of the challenge to Sargsyan, but neither is seen as strong enough to unseat the president on his own.  The remainder of the field consists of five minor candidates including a former Soviet dissident, a former foreign minister of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in Azerbaijan, a university professor of myths and poetry, and two political newcomers.  Each has little hope of running a campaign amounting to anything more than a curiosity.

Former president Levon Ter-Petrossian, who finished second to Sargsyan in the 2008 ballot, declined to run against him again this year, citing his age – he is 68 – and an unspecified “technical” complication.  Ter-Petrossian’s party, the Armenian National Congress, declined to name another candidate.  Ter-Petrossian denounced the ballot in 2008, saying it was rigged against him. Two additional parliamentary parties have decided not to challenge Sargsyan on grounds that the outcome is pre-ordained.

The Prosperous Armenia Party – the second largest party in parliament behind Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia – announced that it would not field a candidate after its leader, businessman Gagik Tsarukian, decided not to run. Tsarukian made his decision following a meeting with Sargsyan early in December.  Prosperous Armenia went a step further, declining to endorse any of the challengers.  That decision has prompted speculation of a backroom deal between Prosperous Tsarukian and Sargsyan.

Further complicating matters in Yerevan, and adding to the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the election, candidate Paruyr Hairikian, the former Soviet dissident and veteran presidential candidate, was shot last week while visiting his parents’ house in the capital.  Hairikian was wounded in the shoulder and is expected to make a complete recovery, but his hospitalization could delay the vote.  Armenia’s constitution requires a minimum two-week postponement if any candidate is unable to fully participate due to unforeseen circumstances.  Hairikian has not decided yet whether he will seek the delay.

All of this has left Sargsyan in the somewhat unusual position of having to talk up the strengths of his opposition in order to legitimize his own expected victory.  In an interview with Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe’s Armenian service, Sargsyan said he expects a “competitive” election.

“I don’t agree with those who say that there are no strong competitors or people who could poll a significant number of votes,” Sargsyan said. “And who has said that Raffi Hovannisian, Hrant Bagratian, or Paruyr Hairikian, who have merits and a track record, are easier competitors or have less experience in debating or in speaking in public?”

The presidential election of 2008 was marred by allegations of ballot stuffing, vote buying, and harassment and intimidation of poll workers.  Popular anger at the result led to ten days of protests in Yerevan’s Freedom Square, which were forcibly dispersed by riot police.  Ten deaths, the arrests of dozens of opposition activists, and a 20-day state of emergency later, Armenia’s political opposition was effectively broken, a state in which it remains today.  Sargsyan’s government limited the ability of the opposition to organize – closing Freedom Square to demonstrations for three years – as well as get its message out.  The government amended laws on broadcasting to limit ownership of outlets and dictate acceptable programming among other rules.

Given the lack of enthusiasm surrounding the presidential contest this year, there likely won’t be a repeat of the unrest in 2008.  The political climate has improved since that time as well.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe judged the 2012 parliamentary elections to be improved over the 2010 contest.  Still, a vibrant political opposition being evidence of the health of a democracy, we cannot help by despair at the lack of serious challengers in this month’s presidential election.

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