President Robert Kocharyan, in comments Monday,
made clear that he aims to win next month's presidential
elections without going into a runoff. (Official
campaigning for the February 19 vote began Tuesday.)
"Opinion polls show that this is quite realistic.
But the pre-election struggle remains a pre-election
struggle, and we must work hard. Time will tell
[whether we succeed]," Kocharyan said.
Most opinion polls do, in fact, give Kocharyan
a substantial lead over his main challengers.
The surveys, conducted by government-linked pollsters
and mainly publicized by pro-presidential media,
claim his popularity is rising steadily and will
result in a landslide re-election.
But other pollsters are more cautious in their
predictions. Aleksandr Avetisyan is the director
of the Center for Election Techniques, a private
polling agency in Yerevan. He said Kocharyan's
chances of first-round victory are "fifty-fifty."
"It is difficult to make such a forecast
at the moment because, in my and not only my opinion,
it is the campaigning that will have a decisive
impact [on the election outcome]. And that is
only now getting under way," Avetisyan said.
Boosting Kocharyan's chances is the failure of
Armenia's main opposition parties to nominate
a single presidential candidate. It appears that
the protest vote against the current regime will
be split among at least four opposition candidates.
Two of them, Stepan Demirchyan and Artashes Geghamyan,
are now seen as Kocharyan's main challengers.
They both have a leftist political orientation
that contrasts with Kocharyan's emphasis on free-market
Analysts agree that opposition leaders stand
a fighting chance of defeating the incumbent only
in the event of a runoff. For that reason, Kocharyan's
intention to win a first-round victory with a
simple majority has caused considerable agitation
among his opponents.
among the opposition have gone as far as to allege
Kocharyan will use ballot rigging in his quest
for a second term in office, saying his decision
to appoint as his campaign manager the country's
powerful defense minister, Serge Sarkisyan, only
cements their conviction that the President intends
to win a first-round victory by any means possible
-- fair or foul. They also point to the controversy
surrounding Kocharyan's second-round victory in
elections five years ago.
A monitoring mission from the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), had
concluded that the 1998 vote did not meet democratic
standards. The upcoming polls will again be watched
by more than 250 OSCE observers. Their head, Peter
Eicher, is already urging the authorities to prevent
a repeat of the past irregularities.
"We hope that this year's mission will be
able to report further progress and will be able
to conclude that Armenia is now meeting its international
and domestic obligations on democratic elections,"
The vote will be a serious test of the Armenian
government's stated commitment to democratization
and integration into various European structures.
The West's future policy decisions on Armenia
will be based primarily on the findings of the
OSCE observer missions.
The U.S. and European Union ambassadors to Armenia
highlighted their concerns last November when
they suggested several antifraud measures in a
joint letter to Armenia's Central Election Commission.
Some local media have suggested that the United
States would like to see Kocharyan smoothly re-elected,
in the hope that the Armenian leader will continue
U.S.-backed international efforts to resolve the
conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Kocharyan has held more than 20 face-to-face
meetings on Karabakh with Azerbaijani President
Heidar Aliev during his presidency. With presidential
elections due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan this
year, few observers expect a breakthrough on the
issue before 2004. Electoral victories not marred
by allegations of fraud would give the two leaders
a popular mandate to press ahead with mutual concessions
needed to end the protracted territorial dispute.
Karabakh, however, is not expected to be a major
issue in the Armenian presidential race. Opposition
candidates will likely focus on continuing hardships
suffered by Armenians despite several consecutive
years of economic growth. At least half of the
country's residents live below the poverty line.
Kocharyan, on the other hand, argues that positive
change is being made, albeit slowly. In particular,
he is likely to stress record-high economic growth
of 12 percent registered by the authorities last
year. A few more such years, his supporters say,
and Armenia will turn the corner.
According to pollster Avetisian, quite a few
Armenians buy Kocharyan's argument: "A considerable
part of the electorate really believes that Mr.
Kocharyan has done a lot in recent years [and]
doesn't see any alternative to him and would simply
like to let him finish the job."
In addition, Avetisyan and other analysts say,
the incumbent president is running by far the
most expensive election campaign, funded by many
wealthy businesspeople and backed by virtually
all major television stations in Armenia.
The only national television channel that aired
criticism of Kocharyan, A1+, was shut down last
April -- a development that critics say marked
the start of Kocharyan's re-election campaign.
Faced with strong domestic and international criticism,
the authorities reportedly promised the Council
of Europe to enable A1+ to resume broadcasts before
the presidential elections. However, that became
impossible after a government-administered bidding
for television frequencies was canceled last November
under unclear circumstances.
This means that Armenian television viewers will
hear virtually no criticism of Kocharyan over
the next four weeks. The one exception will be
the three hours of airtime on state television
allotted to each of the opposition candidates.
Under Armenia's election law, however, only a
third of the time will be provided free of charge
by state-run Armenian Public Television.
Furthermore, campaigning rules approved by the
Central Election Commission yesterday stipulate
that a single candidate cannot run more than 10
minutes of advertisements a day in the run-up
to the elections.