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ELECTORAL DYNAMICS IN ARMENIA: RUNOFF LOOKS INEVITABLE NOW Armenian News Network / Groong February 17, 2003 INITIAL OBSERVATIONS The electoral season in Armenia, unlike in the United States, does not kick off officially until a month prior to the elections. The candidates, naturally, begin campaigning 'unofficially' long before the permitted beginning date of the campaign, but just as in the prior Presidential elections, the campaigning season did not start in earnest until January 21. The campaigning has to cease at midnight on February 17, and the Armenian voters will take a day off before heading to the polls on February 19. The short duration of the electoral season in Armenia results in greater intensity and dynamics. Three months prior to the Election Day it looked plausible for the incumbent President to coast to victory on February 19, if only because of the weak and fragmented opposition and, arguably, the enormous 'incumbent advantage' of engaging the traditional political machines around the country. In order to secure victory on the Election Day, the presidential candidate has to secure more than 50% of the total vote; if no candidate receives more than 50%, a run-off is scheduled two weeks later. Armenian citizens, like voters in most transition countries, deliver a huge protest vote, and the strategy for an opposition candidate is to transform into a credible, charismatic alternative to the incumbent. This accounted for the successful performance of Vazgen Manukian and Karen Demirchian in the 1996 and 1998 Presidential elections, respectively. THE ELECTION IS THE INCUMBENT'S TO LOSE It is therefore to the incumbent's advantage that the opposition suffers from a credibility or competency gap. With no real alternative to the incumbent, the Armenian voters are likely to either vote for a continuation of the status quo (don't-change-horses-midstream philosophy), or boycott the electoral process by not voting or voting 'against all' candidates. The suppressed turnout benefits the incumbent if he can get out the vote in his favor, and voting 'against all' also favors the winner of the elections since only votes cast in favor of the candidates make a difference. In December 2002, the electoral developments seemed to favor President Robert Kocharian. Having announced his plans for run for a second term in office in September 2001, Kocharian secured all bases necessary for an incumbent President's re-election in Armenia: he co-opted the support of the local political bosses and Prime Minister Andranik Margarian's fractured and faceless parliamentary majority, tightened his grip on the television broadcasting and media, secured the financing of his campaign from friendly businesses and made overtures to such diverse Diasporan political and economic interest groups as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the Armenian Union of Russia. The local elections in October 2002 saw the allies of the President or Prime Minister secure their hold over cities and villages of Armenia; the opposition seemed largely disinclined or disinterested in running local governments. Defense Minister Serge Sargsian, who is arguably the second most powerful person in Armenia and has good connections to major corporate interests, took an extended leave of absence to manage Kocharian's campaign. Most observers noted, some with delight, others with sadness, a certain inevitability in Kocharian's re-election. The only major embarrassment for Kocharian's campaign was the assassination of Armenian Public Television President Tigran Naghdalian on December 28, 2002, which revived memories of a chain of unsolved murders and assassinations in Armenia since 1998. President Kocharian had to delegate a trusted aide, Alexan Harutyunian, to run the Public Television, the main media outlet in Armenia. Moreover, opposition candidates showed no indication of maturing into credible alternatives. In addition to the incumbent, fourteen candidates announced their intention to run, of whom eleven belonged to the parties that had earlier formed a 'Group of 16,' ostensibly for the purpose of selecting a joint opposition candidate. The opposition's challenge seemed insurmountable, especially because the New Year and Christmas holidays, with a two-week eating-and-drinking truce (also observed by all print media) would intervene. Eventually, with three candidates dropping out and one - Raffi Hovhannisian - disqualified on a technicality, only eleven candidates remained on the ballot, including eight opposition contenders. Even President Kocharian deplored, if somewhat disingenuously, the lack of unity among opposition. UNPREDICTABLE ELECTORAL DYNAMICS Still, the first three weeks of campaigning have again confirmed the unpredictable nature of the Armenian politics and showed that the popularity of a unity opposition candidate does not necessarily equal the sum of all the opposition candidates' votes and ratings. At least three opposition candidates, Stepan Demirchian, Artashes Geghamian and Aram Karapetian, and to a lesser degree, Vazgen Manukian have mounted well-organized, serious and well-funded campaigns. Other opposition candidates, Vladimir Darbinian, Garnik Margarian, Aram Z. Sargsian, Aram G. Sargsian seemed content to play second fiddle to one of the candidates, and in fact three of them dropped out of the race or endorsed other candidates by February 14. In fact, it now appears that the decision of many of the opposition candidates to contest the vote was made at least partially so that they could be allocated free airtime on the Public Television, which otherwise restricted access to the opposition, to criticize Kocharian by proxy. In this, they repeated the tactics of 1996 Presidential election. It is also possible that the opposition alliances ran several candidates as a hedge against unforeseen developments such as natural or unnatural accidents during the campaign. But with only five days to go before the elections, it has become increasingly obvious that the February 19 vote will result in a run-off between Kocharian and one of two opposition candidates: Artashes Geghamian or Stepan Demirchian. By relentless campaigning, the four main opposition candidates managed to tap into a huge reservoir of popular angst and discontent, which is caused primarily by the social and economic situation in Armenia. Despite the impressive economic statistics, visible progress in infrastructure development in Yerevan and around the country, more than 51% of the Armenian population, by official count, remain vulnerable and more than half of them are desperately poor. The permanent or temporary migration of nearly 800 thousand Armenians since 1991 (the 2001 census set Armenia's population at 2.95 million) has inflicted deep psychological and social wounds on society. It is fair to say that the larger part of the Armenian electorate is low-income, educated, disappointed and disenchanted with the government - any government in power - and this translates into a large protest vote turnout at every election. The Kocharian team's tactics of 2003 are borrowed from the 1996 re-election campaign of president Levon Ter-Petrossian, with a behemoth organization, a local campaign branch on every street corner, incompetent and excessive media coverage that backfires, and rapid expenditure of the incumbent's significant political capital without proper oversight. The result, according to most third-party observers, is heavy-handed approach in localities, ranging from petty harassment to serious incidents, like the February 4 scuttling of opposition candidate rallies in Artashat. The events in Artashat led to concerns about the Kocharian campaign's lack of control over the situation in the regions in exchange for securing a first round victory at all costs. The petty fascination with the importance of a first-round victory betrays not only lack of proper understanding of democratic mechanisms but also total loss of reaction to an increasingly strong international criticism. Unlike in 1996 and 1998, the international community, including the United States, OSCE and Council of Europe members, have a priori put Armenia on notice about the imperative of a free, democratic and fair electoral process in Armenia. U.S. Ambassador to Armenia sounded a stern warning by saying, essentially, that the international community would not support or recognize an electoral outcome other than a perfect, free and fair vote. With major geopolitical dynamics and regional challenges looming on the horizon in the near future, Armenia can ill afford to have a President challen! ged not only domestically, but lso internationally. RUN-OFF LOOKS INEVITABLE All indications are that at least some people in Kocharian's team have enough common-sense to understand that a run-off is unavoidable at this point since a first-round victory would require an extraordinary (and extracurricular) effort and result in the electoral victory dividends being split among too many interest groups. In general, a second round victory is more feasible and would substantially reduce the ire of the international and domestic observers. It would also be easier to deal with one defeated opponent than with eight simultaneously. Out of the four major opposition candidates, Aram Karapetian and Vazgen Manukian failed to achieve escape velocity to propel them into a run-off. By contrast, Demirchian and Geghamian both have positioned themselves as possible contenders in the run-off, and are trying to achieve a higher orbit on February 19. It is highly doubtful that Aram Karapetian himself believed in his victory; his campaign probably aimed to introduce him to the voters well in advance of the parliamentary elections in May. Vazgen Manukian's main purpose in running was to establish his relevancy despite the multiple splits of his party, the National Democratic Union, and confirm his status as the pre-eminent statesman of Armenian politics. (Note: out of four top leaders of the NDU in 1998, one supports Kocharian and two have endorsed Demirchian). Geghamian, who has more experience under his belt, is also a formidable campaigner and demagogue, and his campaign is well-financed and organized. A representative of the Soviet nomenclature, Geghamian's peak in politics was in 1990 when he was Mayor of Yerevan under arguably most difficult circumstances. Since independence he has tried his hand, seemingly with success, at everything from business to parliamentary activities. Having secured an important endorsement from the Communist Party leader, he will benefit from this important electoral base. Geghamian's campaign also received an important boost from an unlikely source: the Public Television. A smooth talker and a smart demagogue, he easily overpowered, in the eyes of most Armenian voters, Kocharian's campaign manager Serge Sargsian in their February 1 televised public debate. The one-sided results of the debate led to conspiracy theories of behind-the-scene deals between Geghamian and Kocharian among many Demirchian supporters and third-party observers. This is based on Geghamian's prior track record but is largely an ungrounded accusation since any deal between the two before the elections will indicate to Geghamian (and the rest of the public) the weakness of the Kocharian campaign. With the Armenian presidential regime being what it is, an essentially authoritarian system based on fear of discipline, any indication or admission of weakness would undermine its authority very quickly. This does not preclude the possibility of a deal between Geghamian and Kocharian after the run-off: if Geghamian does not challenge the outcome of the election, Kocharian's critics will be silenced. In return, Geghamian can receive a government position or assurances of support during the upcoming Parliamentary election in May. This is in fact what happened in 1998: Karen Demirchian (Stepan's father) proved pliable to a compromise, which was negotiated by Vazgen Sargsian personally (and would serve as a catalyst for the formation of the Unity alliance between the two a year later). Demirchian Sr. did not challenge Kocharian's victory (but would not endorse it either) so Kocharian's critics could not challenge it either. In turn, he would get a chance to build his party unhindered and go to the parliamentary elections. Given the tragic way in which Karen Demirchian's and Vazgen Sargsian's political careers ended and the long shadow of the October 27 case, Stepan Demirchian and his rump People's Party (AZhM) would be far less likely to agree to a compromise with Kocharian. A far better strategy for Demirchian would be not to negotiate. Since the parliamentary elections are only three months away, the People's Party would rather have an incumbent president with a stigma of illegitimacy and themselves with a status of martyrs, which could translate into a parliamentary majority or plurality. Demirchian has invested a lot of money and effort into his campaign. His campaign stops reveal good organization and work by advance people. Since he has essentially a clean slate, the average voter cannot associate him with any of the negative (or positive) accomplishments of the post-independence era. The only association he can generate is that with his father, and he masterfully exploits it. His own personable and accommodating qualities resulted in his being endorsed by, among others, former Prime Minister Aram Z. Sargsian, former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovhannisian, members of NDU splinter groups, the Democratic party and the like. FORK AT THE ROAD The Kocharian campaign, essentially, is facing an important choice that will affect the course of Armenia's future for years to come. First, they need to recognize that an unfair victory in the first round cannot be forced down the throats of the people of Armenia and the international community. The Kocharian campaign and Robert Kocharian himself are rational enough to realize this. In a run-off, there can be two choices: refocus their campaign and achieve a solid and fair victory over the opponent, or attempt to reach a clandestine deal with the opponent at the expense of the democratic electoral process. If the intensity and ferocity of the Kocharian campaign are reduced markedly to the point where it is able again to communicate directly with the voters, it is possible to conduct an electoral campaign with dignity and style, and draw people's attention to the personal qualities and achievements of President Kocharian vis-a-vis either Geghamian or Demirchian. It is a common refrain for any incumbent government in transition countries to claim that the voters are not reliable, responsible or sensible enough to choose a good candidate on their own, and such sentiments are not unknown for a succession of Armenian governments since 1995. They are misinformed; the people of Armenia are mature enough to take an objective look at the candidates and make an informed choice. By most accounts, candidate Kocharian does not stand to lose in this comparison and is able to face his electorate on his own, if he shakes down his campaign after the first round and assumes personal responsibility for his re-election. Alternatively, his campaign could buy out the contender in the run-off, and if one of the candidates is less likely to sell out, to help push another into the run-off. The recent and sudden improvement in Geghamian's coverage on Public Television could be a sign of a collision of interests between the Geghamian and Kocharian campaigns. The loser in this scenario is not Stepan Demirchian but, rather, the people of Armenia who will once again be denied their right to choose their government. In the absence of credible polling data on the elections, it is difficult to assess which scenario holds true. Only the election results on February 19 will confirm or dispel the fears in this report.