A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
YEREVAN -- "Let us believe in change!" seems like a strange campaign slogan for a party that has dominated Armenia's political landscape since 2007 and whose leader, Serzh Sarkisian, has been president since 2008.
But the incumbent president is leading his Republican Party (HHK) into the May 6 legislative elections by promising "a completely new Armenia" within a few years. And that "new Armenia," Sarkisian says, will begin with next month's voting, which the government vows will be substantially cleaner and more competitive than past efforts.
The opposition, too, is cautiously optimistic that this time around the country will be able to produce a legislature that truly reflects the political spectrum of society. The former president and leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress, Levon Ter-Petrossian, says the tide of both domestic and international opinion is pushing Armenia toward greater democratization.
"Today the international environment has changed," Ter-Petrossian says. "The world would no longer put up with the kind of abuses that were committed in Armenia in the past. The events in Arab countries...have taught the world a lesson, and I'm sure the world will be looking at our elections with totally different eyes."
Ter-Petrossian is urging all Armenians to participate in the May voting.
The international community -- and particularly the European Union -- is watching the current campaign intently, waiting to see if Armenia can make a qualitative breakthrough in governance that could signal the time is ripe for more intense engagement.
"The European Union will be watching very carefully what happens in the Armenian elections," says Michael Mann, the spokesman for EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton. "Obviously, depending upon what happens, it really shows how seriously they are taking reforms in that country and, of course, as far as the European Union is concerned, the degree to which a country has reformed itself determines the sort of relationship we have with that county."
In addition, Yerevan-based political analyst Richard Giragosian says the Armenian campaign kicks off a regional election cycle and could thus become a bellwether.
"It has broader regional significance because it is within a framework of a broader regional election cycle, in that we have elections coming in Georgia and Azerbaijan," Giragosian says. "In this sense, the performance, the conduct, and the aftermath of the Armenian elections will hold direct implications for both Georgia and Azerbaijan."
The current campaign comes very much under the political shadow of the 2008 presidential election, which opposition candidates claim fraudulently brought Sarkisian to power and which were followed by demonstrations and clashes that left 10 people dead.
That crisis also left a deep divide between the government and the opposition, which asserted it was effectively locked out of the political process by the ruling party's monopoly of state institutions. This divide has contributed to the lack of progress on key issues, including economic development, political, and legal reform, and the dispute over Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh region -- although Sarkisian has been praised internationally for his efforts to reach out to his political opponents.
Although the current campaign is an important test for the government, it has not gone off entirely smoothly so far. Independent candidate Meruzhan Mkhoyan pulled out of the race after he was abducted from his home on April 6 and beaten by a group of unknown assailants. Mkhoyan's supporters blame the attack on supporters of his HHK rival, Aleksan Petrosian. Petrosian has denied all involvement.
Earlier this month, a bloc of four major political parties agreed to form the joint Inter-Party Center for the Public Oversight of Elections, which is intended to detect and prevent attempts to illegally influence the voting, including the illegal use of "administrative resources" by government officials.
The ruling Republican Party has refused to join the initiative and countered with its own voluntary "code of conduct" for all parties and candidates. Republican parliament member Davit Harutiunian tells RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the proposal is intended to create a sense of "common responsibility" for the elections.
"The essence of the proposal was that all parties that will take part in the election process voluntarily take certain responsibilities," Haratiunian says. "At some point, we all have to feel a common responsibility for political processes and for political environment that the country is in now. I am deeply convinced that everyone shares the burden of responsibility be it the representatives of the authorities or the opposition."
However, in what seems a sign of the lingering mistrust between the authorities and the opposition, Armenian National Congress (HAK) coordinator Levon Zurabian immediately rejected the ruling party's plan.
"The main organizer and perpetrator of vote falsifications in Armenia is Serzh Sarkisian's regime embodied by the Republican Party, and naturally such initiatives by that force are unacceptable," Zurabian says.
Zurabian charges that, instead of engaging with the opposition, the ruling Republican Party will continue to muddy the political waters.
"The authorities are very worried about the creation by the four political forces of a joint coordinating center to fight against fraud," Zurabian says. "Now they will come up with one initiative after another."
Another issue that has caused concern as the campaigning has gotten under way is the voting rolls. The government's official tally shows 2,485,000 eligible voters, some 165,000 more than were on the rolls in the 2007 elections. In the meantime, the October 2011 census showed the country's population at about 2,870,000, a decline of more than 400,000 people over the last decade.
President Sarkisian explains the expanded rolls by saying that many Armenians living abroad have been added.
"Being absent from the country is not sufficient grounds from removing people from the voter lists, and this is the reason why the number of citizens on those lists is growing," Sarkisian says. "But being included on the list does necessarily not mean taking part in elections."
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague, and RFE/RL correspondent Rikard Jozwiak contributed from Brussels