By Armen Zakarian
Armenia’s newly formed Central Election Commission held its first meeting on Wednesday, setting February 19 and May 25, 2003 as the dates for the next presidential and parliamentary elections.
The move means that campaigning for the presidential ballot will officially start in early January. President Robert Kocharian will be one of the main contenders. It is not yet clear who will be his chief challenger.
Armenia’s leading opposition parties have indicated their intention to field a joint presidential candidate in a bid unseat Kocharian. But they have taken few practical steps so far.
The CEC decision fixing a date for the legislative elections effectively ended long-running speculation about Kocharian’s plans to dissolve the parliament before it completes its four-year term.
Under the Armenian constitution, the president can not disband the legislature during the final six months of his tenure. That means he is still technically able to call fresh elections before the end of this year. But such a development now seems very unlikely.
In another decision, the CEC voted to reelect former government official Artak Sahradian as its chairman. Sahradian was among three persons appointed by Kocharian as members of the new CEC. A member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) party, Hamlet Abrahamian, was elected as his deputy.
The nine-member body has been formed in accordance with the recently amended electoral code which empowers Kocharian to name one third of the members of various-level election commissions. The other members will be appointed by six political parties and alliances represented in the current National Assembly.
At least three of them support the president, giving him de facto control of the electoral process -- something which is crucial in Armenia where the outcome of elections has often been affected by government manipulation.
This fact was deplored by Zaven Pluzian, a CEC member representing the opposition Right and Accord bloc. “This means that all electoral bodies will be managed by presidential loyalists,” he complained. “The opposition will not play a major role.”