Notes From Hairenik
February 7, 2008

The Armenian presidential elections are fast approaching, set to be held on February 19. Up until now I have refrained from writing about them since there is so much coverage on other blogs published from Armenia, and I would simply be regurgitating what was discussed elsewhere. But given the circumstances and the political unrest that is already unfolding, I figured I would touch upon some of the brouhaha and also provide short summaries of the candidates. These presidential elections are the first that I am present for as I was not in Armenia when they were last held in 2003. Nevertheless I think there is quite some excitement now since the candidates are more dynamic than the ones from the last time around, and the climate will become increasingly tense the closer we come to Super Tuesday, which incidentally is meant to be a national holiday so that people will have ample time to go to the voting stations. There is much more at stake in these elections, namely five more years of the current type of leadership or anywhere between three years to a full term with a fresh regime, depending on which opposition candidate may get elected.

Below are summaries of each of the Armenian presidential candidates.

Arthur Baghdasarian, Country of Law (Orinats Yerkir). Baghdasarian is the youngest candidate being about 40 years of age. He is the long-standing leader of the opposition Country of Law party and is the former speaker of National Assembly, having resigned less than two years ago resulting from mysterious grievances he had with the governing authorities. His charisma, charm, and good looks are certainly appealing, and the messages he has been spreading all along about running a nation that respects its own well-defined laws in the name of the people and a fair judicial system have been very promising. Nevertheless it remains to be seen where indeed he will stand in the elections.

Artashes Geghamian, National Unity Party. Armenians will undoubtedly not expect very much from this cacophonous candidate, a former deputy of the Armenian National Assembly. He is generally a very outspoken critic, previously of the government and now increasingly of his main rival candidate, Levon Ter-Petrossian. In the days leading up to the parliamentary elections held last May he suddenly became very quiet, toning down his rhetoric aimed at the authorities significantly. There has been common speculation that he has taken monetary gifts from some naturally unnamed individuals in the past in exchange for shutting his mouth.

Vahan Hovannisian, Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (ARF-D). This candidate is an executive leader of the socialist ARF-D, which for the most part is the oldest active Armenian political party that holds any weight and popularity, having been founded in 1890. Hovannisian is also the deputy speaker of the National Assembly. If he were to be elected, he would perpetuate the legacy of the party which effectively ran the first Armenian republic of 1919-1921, having had control of the government. So Hovannisian has great expectations to meet in the sense that the entire Armenian nation would be scrutinizing every move he would make as president, since the organization is a pan-Armenian one whose members can be found in virtually all corners of the civilized world. In other words, he would appear very bright under the spotlight for both citizens here and Armenians closely following sociopolitical issues in the homeland from afar. I have spoken to two people so far under the age of 35 who pledged they would vote for him on election day.

Tigran Karapetian, Popular Party. This candidate is as far away from politics as anyone here can possibly be. Karapetian is owner of the ALM television station and a notorious former pickpocket during the Soviet era who has wooed the rural population of Armenia through his broadcasted programs featuring people singing karaoke on the air, apparently to no avail. He is not expected to get anywhere. Actually he is a joke simply judging from the way he awkwardly poses and smiles with his bogus charm on television.

Vazgen Manukian, National Democratic Union. This former prime minister and defense minister during the first decade of Armenia’s independence is an extremely intelligent, well-spoken candidate. He was one of the original members of the Pan-Armenian National Movement which struggled for the self-determination of Nagorno-Karabagh. Although he tends to weave in and out of political life having defiantly not to mention dubiously chosen to boycott the last parliamentary elections in a move that may not have been too wise in retrospect since his party for the most part now holds no weight whatsoever. A vote for him would be one of respect for this man of dignity and his legacy. He was the main challenger in the 1996 presidential bid facing his former comrade Levon Ter-Petrossian, losing the elections with quite a bit of controversy surrounding voting irregularities. This time around he may not have any real chance of being a contender, especially given the fact that he has not been campaigning whatsoever.

Serge Sargsyan, Republican Party. When the former defense minister and current prime minister joined the Republicans a year or so ago the speculation was that he was preparing for a presidential bid. Sure enough the gossip turned out to be true. He is the closest ally to President Robert Kocharian having worked with him dedicatedly during the span of two decades, first in Karabagh. A vote for the short-statured shadow businessman Sargsyan would mean signing for the effective carte blanche persistence of the current leadership for five more years. President Kocharian has been fairly vocal about intending to continue to serve in some political capacity after he leaves office, and naturally the street decrees that he would serve as prime minister were the current one be elected president. The authorities have been accused of everything from being totalitarian using brutish force when necessary to oppress the outspoken masses to being notorious gangsters fuelled by exorbitant economic gain, and so forth. Yet Sargsyan’s sex appeal can hardly be dismissed with his portrait plastered all over town on billboards and buses. He is widely believed to win the elections, sailing to victory with his peculiar message “Forward Armenia,” nevertheless with a strong fight from his contender Levon Ter-Petrossian.

Levon Ter-Petrossian, Pan-Armenian National Movement. The allusive former Armenian president decided to rise from his 10-year hibernation a few months ago and began making lots of groans and grunts, hungry to return to power. During his first rally in October he managed to attract anywhere between 12,000-60,000 people, depending on the news source, and still manages to pack them in. Despite the fact that arguably hundreds of thousands of Armenian citizens blame him for the socioeconomic woes of the 1990s when there was no bread on people’s tables due to the virtual overnight economic collapse as Armenia declared independence and no electricity to light and heat peoples homes because he was selling it to Georgia, many are more than willing to vote him into power again. In fact these same people are convinced that none of their hardships were his fault, thanks to his PR machine. Ter-Petrossian was ousted from power by then prime minister Kocharian under accusations that he was prepared to “sell out” Karabagh in a phased peace deal rather than in a package deal which would settle the issues once and for all. Now he is criticizing the current authorities of allegedly wanting to do the same thing with Karabagh that he intended. His campaigning has been very aggressive as he has been visiting various regions of Armenia, trying to rally their support. His campaign posters reading the message “We’ll Win” are popping up on the walls of buildings everywhere. A former foreign minister, Aleksandr Arzumanian, is standing by him as his campaign manager. Ter-Petrossian is widely considered to be Prime Minister Sargsyan’s main challenger on election day by the press and public opinion. He has vowed on more than one occasion that he would only serve for three years, which would be more than enough to solve the country’s problems, including the Karabagh issue, according to his pompous genius.

I think many people were expecting more from the non-Levon supporting opposition. I for one was anticipating an alliance to be forged between Vazgen Manukian, former foreign minister under Levon’s regime Raffi Hovanissian, and Arthur Baghdasarian to overtake Ter-Petrossian. I have spoken to others who were waiting for the same thing. Unfortunately for everyone, especially the opposition, this did not happen and it is a real pity.

Vahan Hovannisian, God love him and the ARF-D, suffice it to say does not have a chance. Although the party platform of social equality, justice, and so forth is something very dear to me and countless others, I don’t believe he will ultimately be able to convince the Armenian people that the party can pull it off, although they are undeniably doing their fare share of campaigning. The party is regarded as being too close to the government, holding several parliament seats and three ministry positions, and at the end of the day it is widely believed that the ARF-D will throw its weight behind Prime Minister Sargsyan, since Ter-Petrossian banned the party in the 1990s and threw a bunch of its members into jail at the same time. Thus we can rule out any type of alliance with the latter candidate. The party’s support for Prime Minister Sargsyan would be the most logical inevitability and would certainly guarantee that they be able to secure seats in the next government, were he elected president of course.

Incidentally, several polls have been taken recently attempting to gauge public support. In a US-sponsored Gallup poll taken by the Armenian Sociological Association, Prime Minister Sargsyan enjoyed 35 percent of public support in December, with Baghdasarian earning about 13 percent. Yet Ter-Petrossian was estimated to have gartered not even 3 percent support. Rival presidential candidates claimed that the poll was biased and were quick to brush aside the official results.

There are already reports of harassment and death threats against the candidates or their supporters, and they will only escalate during the coming 10 days. And accusations of vote buying as well as intentions to falsify the election results have long been flying. Perhaps the closer we come to election day the more revved up people will be in general. But I know one thing—of all the Armenian citizens I have spoken to not one told me they would not bother to vote.