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Armenia: Ahead of Key Election, New Alliances Coalesce

Unusually frigid February weather aside, Armenia's politics is thawing out of its traditional winter slumber unseasonably early as it looks ahead to an April 2 election that now appears far less predictable than it had just a couple of months ago.

As in four preceding parliamentary elections, the ruling Republican Party (RPA) is the presumptive favorite. But a half dozen alliances and individual political parties are expected to offer some real competition for seats in the new National Assembly. Pre-election buzz is real, horse trading is in full swing, and even long-disappeared politicos are reemerging to seek out places for themselves in the electoral lists.

What makes this election different is the new constitutional framework that calls for transition of executive power from incumbent president Serzh Sargsyan – who completes his term a year from now – to a prime minister selected by parliamentary majority. That ups the stakes in these elections, and the buzz is all around three individual politicians.

First, is businessman Gagik Tsarukyan, 60, who heads the Prosperous Armenia Party, the country’s second largest since 2007. Tsarukyan has fairly strong support among less well-to-do Armenians due mostly to his philanthropic activities and his man-of-the-people appeal. He has been endorsed by Armenia’s “first oligarch” Khachatur Sukiasyan, who was a key financial backer of ex-president Levon Ter-Petrossian’s 2008 campaign, and Stepan Demirchian, the main opposition candidate in 2003 elections, son of former Soviet Armenian leader Karen Demirchian, and the main presidential challenger in 1998. Perhaps most importantly, Tsarukyan is likely to be backed by former prime minister and RPA election manager Hovik Abrahamyan, who happens to be Tsarukyan's relative through their children's marriage.

Second is Seyran Ohanyan, 54, Armenia’s defense minister until last October and throughout his eight-year tenure perhaps the government minister most trusted by the public. After refusing several job offers from president Sargsyan, Ohanyan is now finding his legs as an opposition politician and government critic. He has won the backing of several prominent political figures, including 2013 opposition presidential candidate Raffi Hovannissian and former foreign minister Vartan Oskanian. At the same time, the Ohanyan-led bloc is considering an alliance with Tsarukyan.

Last, but not least, is the new face of the Republican Party, Karen Karapetyan, 53, prime minister since last September. Brought in as part of the ruling party’s pre-electoral re-branding, Karapetyan is no doubt the most popular figure in the deeply unpopular incumbent administration. Karapetyan’s immediate achievement has been the shedding of some of the most odious mafia types from the RPA leadership, among them Hovik Abrahamyan. In addition to being in the ruling party, Karapetyan has the personal backing of influential people like Moscow real estate magnate Samvel Karapetyan and investment-banker-turned-philanthropist Ruben Vardanyan.

It is so far unclear where all this leaves Serzh Sargsyan. While Sargsyan had previously pledged not to become prime minister under the new constitution, he has lately been less categorical. The president also appointed his long-time chief of staff Vigen Sargsyan (unrelated) to the key job of defense minister, traditionally the job of Armenia’s leader-in-waiting.

But between the two Sargsyans and the three non-Sargsyans, you're pretty likely to find Armenia’s newly constitutionally empowered prime minister. The April 2 vote should bring more clarity.

Armenia: Ahead of Key Election, New Alliances Coalesce

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