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Presidential Elections in Armenia: Candidates and Issues By Hratch Tchilingirian The presidential election on March 16 will bring to power Armenia's second leader since independence. Prospects for democracy, political stability and international credibility depend on the holding of a free, fair and non- violent poll. After flawed parliamentary elections in 1995 and Ter-Petrosian's disputed victory in the 1996 presidential contest, the conduct of the current poll will shape domestic prospects for democratic politics and international confidence in Armenia's stable democratic development. Acting President and Prime Minister Robert Kocharian has pledged to ensure that the election is lawful and fair. In particular, he has assured officials of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- which will monitor the poll, along with other international bodies -- and the United States that neither the army nor interior ministry forces will intervene. The defense and interior ministers have given similar assurances. On March 7, Kocharian and four other candidates -- including former prime minister Vazgen Manukian, who claims to be the rightful victor of the 1996 contest -- signed a declaration committing candidates to making every effort to ensure a free and fair election. However, several opposition candidates declined to sign the document, claiming that local government and police officials are helping Kocharian 's campaign. Suspicions grew when two of Manukian's campaign staff were attacked on March 8. The Kocharian campaign rejected accusations from a Manukian aide that Kocharian supporters were responsible. Several suspects have been arrested. The Candidates The Central Electoral Commission has registered twelve presidential candidates, after each presented the 25,000 signatures required to stand. Three appear likely to receive a substantial share of the first-round vote: 1. Kocharian. A native of Nagorno-Karabakh, where he was president from 1996, Kocharian became prime minister of Armenia in March. Despite doubts over Kocharian's citizenship and apparent failure to meet residency requirements, the Central Electoral Commission has approved his candidacy, on the basis of precedent, current legal practice and contested constitutional provisions. A number of, mostly centre-left, parties and organisations have endorsed Kocharian, including the formerly banned Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which Kocharian reinstated immediately after Ter-Petrosian's resignation. Kocharian can point to his demonstrated leadership abilities and some economic achievements during his year in office. He is also seen as the key figure behind the creation of 'national solidarity' on Nagorno-Karabakh and the exit of the unpopular Ter-Petrosian. 2. Manukian. The chair of the opposition National Democratic Union was prime minister in 1990-91 and defense minister in 1992-93 but resigned from both posts over policy differences with Ter-Petrosian. He received 41% of the vote in the 1996 presidential election. 3. Karen Demirchian. First Secretary of the Communist Party of Armenia from 1974 to 1988, Demirchian has since lived in relative obscurity as director of one of Armenia's largest state enterprises. He was nominated by the Socialist Party but declines to be placed clearly on the political spectrum. (The Communist Party has nominated its own candidate, party leader Sergei Badalian.) Demirchian's popularity has risen rapidly since he launched his surprise candidacy. He is likely to receive the support of those nostalgic for the higher living standards of the late Soviet era. He may also be seen as a leader with the stature of the Transcaucasus's other former Brezhnev-era republican Communist Party secretaries, Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. Presidential issues The economy and Nagorno-Karabakh have been the two most prominent campaign issues and will be the most significant challenges facing the new president: 1. Economy. Despite some success in economic stabilization and institutional reform, bilateral and multilateral aid and diaspora financial inflows remain vital. Popular frustration with high levels of poverty and inequality is considerable. According to government figures, over 600,000 people have left Armenia since 1991; other estimates put the figure at close to 1 million - nearly 25% of the population. Kocharian and Manukian have pledged to strengthen industry, create jobs and more favorable investment conditions and crack down on the black market and tax evasion. They have also promised to increase wages, reform the social security and pension systems and introduce free healthcare for the most vulnerable groups. However, Kocharian argues that improved economic policies and anti-corruption reforms will alone ensure satisfactory economic performance, without movement on Nagorno-Karabakh. Given the economic damage inflicted by the Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades, this is doubtful, and Manukian does not share Kocharian's view. His 1996 campaign pledges also suggest that Manukian's plans for industrial development may involve greater protectionism and subsidization and more dependent economic ties with Russia. Kocharian probably offers the greatest prospect of continuity in market reforms, and he is largely backed by the business community. For his part, Demirchian promises to promote the transition to a market economy, albeit a 'state-regulated' one; his experience in the enterprise sector gives some credibility to his reformist pledges. 2. Nagorno-Karabakh. With the marginalisation of Ter-Petrosian and his party, a broad consensus has emerged on Nagorno-Karabakh, based on the Karabakh Armenians' right to self-determination. In order to remain in contention, most political forces thus oppose the 'phased' proposals of the Minsk Group -- which Ter-Petrosian came to support -- and instead back a 'package' solution, whereby all issues are discussed simultaneously. Kocharian , whose views on Nagorno-Karabakh are the clearest of the three leading contenders, takes this position. He has promised to seek international recognition of the Karabakh Armenians' rights, although he has also said that there is room for compromise within the Minsk Group framework. Manukian has called for a continuation of the peace process within the Minsk Group framework and warned against too hard a position on Nagorno-Karabakh. His stance has drawn criticism for being too passive. Demirchian's position is the least clear, although he has ruled out a return to Nagorno-Karabakh's pre-independence declaration status. He also believes that his long acquaintance with Aliyev could help to expedite a resolution. The challenge for the new president will be to balance domestic popular support for the Karabakh Armenians against international pressures for a resolution of the conflict. In addition to these issues, Manukian and Kocharian have promised to amend the constitution to make Armenia a parliamentary republic. Manukian has also promised fresh parliamentary elections. Outlook It has been widely speculated that Demirchian's candidacy is aimed mainly at taking votes from Manukian and other challengers to Kocharian, thus helping the prime minister to victory. However, Demirchian has denied reports of a secret pact with Kocharian. Moreover, Demirchian's current strong position marks the emergence of a new political heavyweight to challenge Kocharian and Manukian, whose confidence may prove premature. None of the candidates is likely to secure the 50% support needed to win on the first ballot and a run- off on March 30 between two of Kocharian, Manukian and Demirchian thus appears likely. Whoever wins, he is likely to make more serious efforts to consolidate Armenia's political forces. The population is too small to support the 59 political parties and organisations currently in existence, and no party or movement has been able to create a large popular base. Most presidential candidates have expressed an intention to form an 'inclusive' government. The upcoming election marks Armenia's first major leadership and political change since 1991. In the short term, Armenia's domestic and international credibility depends on a fair, free and transparent election. In the long term, the improvement of socio-economic conditions, strong economic development, and the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will be the most difficult challenges facing the new president in Armenia. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Hratch Tchilingirian is a researcher in sociology, at the London School of Economics and Political Science.