The outcome of Armenia’s February 18 presidential election already seems assured, but the campaign has been anything but ordinary.
Compared with Armenia’s hotly contested 2008 presidential election, which featured post-vote demonstrations and clashes that left 10 people dead, this year’s campaign has been a ho-hum affair. But the lack of energy does not appear to concern the odds-on favorite, incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan.
“Elections should not turn into a struggle for life,” Sargsyan said in a February 15 interview with the Russian-language news site Kavkazsky Uzel. “Each candidate should clearly acknowledge that this [vote] is not the main goal of his life … that the world does not end with this.”
So far, many of Sargsyan’s six presidential challenger have tried to make the most of their time in the spotlight, striving to raise their name recognition (if not publicize their policy positions) in a variety of “surprising” ways for Armenian politics, noted Manvel Sarkisian, a political analyst from the Armenian Center for National and International Studies.
The most sensational event in the campaign was the shooting of one the challengers, Paruyr Hayrikian. The ensuing drama of whether or not Hayrikian would seek a postponement of the election added a dollop of suspense and to the process.
Other candidates have vied for attention in unconventional ways. For example, Andrias Ghukasian, a 42-year-old radio-station manager, has been on a hunger strike for nearly three weeks, camping out in a tent near the presidential residence. His shelter bears a poster proclaiming “Stop the Fake Elections!”
Meanwhile, Vardan Sedrakian, a candidate who describes himself as a specialist in Armenian epic poetry, has spoken about “supreme forces,” apparently of divine origin, which urged him to run for president. And then there’s 50-year-old Arman Melikian, a former de-facto foreign minister of the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh territory, who has dismissed the validity of the election in which he is running.
The breakout candidate of the campaign has been California-born candidate Raffi Hovhannisian, leader of the Heritage Party. He has adopted a man-of-the-people image, prompting him to make a variety of unusual campaign appearances, including getting his hair cut at an ordinary barber shop, eating bread and cheese with a pensioner on a street bench and riding the Yerevan subway with the masses. Such candidate behavior may rank as par for the course in the United States, but, in status-sensitive Armenia, it has struck many as bizarre.
“[F]or our society, such techniques are unacceptable,” commented political-campaign analyst Armen Badalian, with a huff. “If you start an election campaign, you have to be familiar with the local way of thinking and make PR moves that won’t be mocked by society, to say the least of it.”
But the strategy appears to have paid at least some dividends: Hovhannisian ranks as Sargsyan’s closest, though still far-behind, challenger, according to opinion polls. A survey by MPG Armenia named Sargsyan as the choice for 68 percent of 1,080 adult respondents, while 24 percent expressed a preference for Hovannisian. The remaining candidates each fell under the 5 percent mark.
Throughout the campaign, Sargsyan has benefited from incumbency. In an election report February 7, the observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted a lack of distinction between Sargsyan’s campaign activities and the use of public funds, officials or facilities. Voter complaints about inaccurate voter lists also persist, the report noted.
That lack of a robust rivalry appears to have prompted Sargsyan to put aside the grandiloquent pledges and pop-music shows of 2008, and adopt a tell-it-as-he-sees-it approach, analysts believe.
During a January 29 campaign appearance in the village of Movses, along the Azerbaijani border, Sargsyan did not mince words when he responded to local complaints about unemployment and emigration. “Is it my fault that your sons left Armenia?” he asked, media reported. “So, that’s why the cucumbers aren’t growing well.”
On the thorny issue of Armenia’s recognition of Karabakh’s independence, an idea championed by Hovhannisian, the president, a Karabakh native and war veteran, was similarly direct. “At the present moment, greater adventurism [than recognizing Karabakh’s independence] could not exist,” he scoffed in Yerevan on February 12, news agencies reported.
Apparently, the effect of such interactions on his electoral support is not a concern. At another meeting, held on February 9 in a village in the northwestern Shirak region, Sargsyan, in response to a pro-opposition TV reporter’s question about his chances at the polls, asserted that he could win as many votes as he wanted, media reported.
“He knows that he will take office again, that the results of the poll will be whipped up again and that he will go on in the same work,” commented campaign analyst Badalian.
Faced by what, to many, appears more like a carnival of candidates than a campaign about policy issues, some voters declare themselves too disillusioned to care. “Unfortunately, neither the elections nor the election campaign play a role in our country,” asserted 28-year-old Emma Babaian, a computer programmer in Yerevan. “In Armenia, the results of elections have always been predictable, so we just don’t want to cast a vote.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.