By Hrant Alexanian in Stepanakert and Mardo Soghom in Prague
After its official start a week ago, the presidential election campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh is slow in picking up pace. People are largely indifferent towards the August 11 polls in the unrecognized, Armenian populated republic, which has gained de-facto independence from Azerbaijan, having its own army and government structures.
The incumbent, President Arkady Ghukassian is the most active among a slate of four registered candidates. The only other active candidate is Arthur Tovmassian; a former speaker of parliament and an independent candidate. The other two candidates seem not ready yet to start their campaigns.
Local analysts believe that even without much campaigning, the incumbent president will easily win the elections. His primary advantage is the fact the he is the only credible registered candidate. Being credible means not only having a proven record, but also the fact that in the post-Soviet societies people often believe that the incumbent cannot be easily challenged. The power of incumbency is perhaps much stronger in societies with an authoritarian past.
Nevertheless, Mr. Ghukassian has started an active campaign, visiting five regions in the past week, meeting citizens in many villages and towns. The other candidates, however, complain that the legal principle of equality among them is more a fiction than a fact. In practice the incumbent has many advantages, which he can use to seal his victory.
Perhaps, this inherent inequality is the main reason why seven NGOs in Karabakh have issued a joint declaration calling for impartial, preferably local observers to follow the elections. The Chairman of the Stepanakert Press Club, Gegham Baghadassarian told RFE/RL that the people of N. Karabakh are not inclined to show full-fledged interest towards the fairness of the election. “Elections per-se mean very little. The important thing is to have democratic, free and transparent elections,” he said. That is why the seven NGOs pledge to follow the election process carefully, making sure that relevant laws and regulations are respected.
According to Mr. Baghdassarian, they plan to meet with the presidential candidates, follow the campaign and periodically voice their opinion about the whole process. But first of all, they believe that the special “war-time regime” should be at least temporarily suspended during the election period.
Being in an armed truce with Azerbaijan, N. Karabakh maintains what is called a “war-time regime”, which permits the authorities for example to keep some control of the media and if necessary to ban public gatherings.
The NGOs also single out another phenomenon, which they believe impedes fully democratic elections. They point out that the incumbent president is sometimes using the government media and machinery for his campaign. Baghdassarian suggested that during the election campaign the president should maybe even take a vacation from his official duties.
However, besides these two shortcomings, the NGOs believe that when politics in general has not matured in a society such as N. Karabakh, where political parties are still weak and dependent on government goodwill in both organizational and individual sense, real choice and therefore real elections are not possible.
It is difficult to overlook the fact that many organizations and all major political parties in N. Karabakh back the incumbent president in this election. But Mr. Ghukassian has promised free and fair elections and has pledged to give the other candidates an equal chance to campaign, especially that it is important for the un-recognized republic to prove to the world that it is building a democratic society.