With only one day to go before Armenia's general elections, President Robert Kocharian and his top political allies appear confident that they will gain a commanding majority in the country's new parliament. Whether or not they will avoid post-election infighting remains an open question, however. Kocharian's most uncompromising opponents, meanwhile, are gearing up for a campaign of anti-government demonstrations that they pledge will follow what they expect to be a fraudulent vote.
The ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) ended its well-funded election campaign with a rally in the center of Yerevan on May 10. Its leader, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, addressed an audience of thousands with what sounded more like an acceptance speech than a last-minute appeal to voters.
"We will not let you down. We will not squander your trust. We will not take any step which will make us feel ashamed," an uncharacteristically emotional Sarkisian told the crowd, dominated by civil servants and other public sector employees. The RPA, he said, is now "stronger than ever before."
In another campaign speech earlier this month, Sarkisian predicted that his party will garner more votes than any other election contender. Senior Republicans privately speak of grabbing at least 50 of the 131 parliament seats and even forming an absolute majority in the next National Assembly.
Access to extensive government levers and sources of financing has given the party a key advantage in its push to retain the largest faction in parliament.
President Kocharian, however, sounded more cautious about the party's chances in televised remarks broadcast later on May 10. While predicting that the main pro-presidential parties will dominate the assembly, he said that none of them will likely be able to "single-handedly form a government."
Still, Kocharian did single out the RPA from the list of his preferred election winners. "I believe it would be good if the Republican Party had a weighty presence in parliament," he told Armenia's three largest TV channels. He argued that the number one challenge facing the South Caucasus nation is the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Azerbaijan's growing threats to settle the dispute by force.
"Now let us think who is capable of coping with this threat," the Armenian leader said. "Those politicians who went through a war, who participated in the formation of our armed forces? Or those politicians who can't tell an [army] battalion from a company or a rifle from a machine gun?"
It was an obvious reference to the fact that Prime Minister Sarkisian was the first commander-in-chief of Karabakh's ethnic Armenian army during its 1992-1994 war against Azerbaijan. Kocharian was the disputed region's political leader at the time. The two Karabakh-born men formed a powerful tandem after moving to top government positions in Yerevan later in the 1990s. Sarkisian is now believed to be planning to succeed Kocharian after the latter completes his second and final term in office in early 2008. Kocharian does not seem to object to those plans, but is clearly trying to remain in government in another capacity, possibly as a prime minister. Local observers say this does not necessarily sit well with Sarkisian. Some see growing friction between Armenia's two top leaders.
While Kocharian left no indication of such a rift in his televised interview, he made a thinly veiled endorsement of another election frontrunner, the Prosperous Armenia Party of Gagik Tsarukian, the country's reputedly richest "oligarch." He said the country's sustainable economic development hinges on "those in the private sector who have created thousands of jobs, have gotten rich, don't conceal that, and are now doing charitable work."
That charitable work, denounced by the Armenian opposition as wholesale vote buying, has been central to Prosperous Armenia's election campaign, which has generated more popular enthusiasm than the RPA's government-organized meetings. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Throughout the campaign Tsarukian was mobbed by scores of admirers, most of them impoverished people impressed with his handouts ranging from wheelchairs for disabled people to ambulance vans and promises of a better life. Armenian law bans election candidates from providing any goods or services to voters. In just about every campaign speech, the beefy tycoon, who reportedly served a prison sentence for rape in Soviet times, stressed that he has "everything" and is not aspiring to any government position, reinforcing the widely held belief that his party is a tool for securing Kocharian's political future.
Prosperous Armenia claims to have more than 400,00 members, equivalent to 17 percent of the country's eligible voters, and intends to get at least as many votes in the May 12 elections. That would almost certainly be enough for a landslide victory in the polls. The RPA won the last elections in 2003 -- amid reports of vote rigging -- with fewer than 300,000 votes. For this reason, potential is seen for conflict between the two establishment parties.
Sarkisian attacked Tsarukian during an RPA campaign rally in Yerevan's northern Arabkir district on May 6. "Some of our rivals say they don't need power because they've got everything and simply want the people to be better off," the Armenian premier said mockingly before declaring that they "don't want power because they don't know what power is."
"I have said that I don't want a government post because I already have one," Tsarukian responded two days later. "I am the chairman of Armenia's National Olympic Committee."
Also seeking a major role in the next government is the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the RPA's junior partner in the current governing coalition. ARF leaders indicated on May 9 that their party wants to control the crucial post of defense minister in the new government to be formed as a result of the elections. They also repeated their threats to move into opposition against Kocharian if the vote falls short of democratic standards.
None of the parliamentary and presidential elections held in Armenia since independence have been judged to be free and fair by US and European monitors. The country's three most radical opposition groups anticipate a repeat of serious vote irregularities, and have already urged supporters to gather in Yerevan's Liberty Square on May 13 and fight for regime change in the streets.
Kocharian warned in late April that any post-election attempts to topple him would provoke a tough government response. In his May 10 remarks, he expressed hope that only unspecified "constructive" opposition forces will be represented in the next Armenian parliament.
Two parties unlikely to feature on that list: the Country of Law Party of former Parliamentary Speaker Artur Baghdasarian and the Heritage Party of US-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian. In his statements, President Kocharian implied that he does not consider either of the two pro-Western forces to be "constructive."
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.