Armenians go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president tasked with managing their struggling economy and the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Fifty percent plus one vote is needed for a clear winner, or else a runoff will be held on March 5.
Nine candidates are in the running. Here are brief profiles of the five main candidates:
Stepan Demirchian, 43
An electrical engineer by training who has managed a largely stagnant electronics plant in Yerevan since 1988. He is the younger son of the late Communist Party First Secretary Karen Demirchian -- a fact which seems to have been instrumental in his successful election campaign. Demirchian is backed by the People’s Party of Armenia, founded by his father in 1998, and over a dozen other opposition groups. His campaign discourse has been short on specifics. Speaking about the economy, Demirchian mainly promises to revive those Soviet-era industries which can successfully operate in a market-based economy. He also promises to ensure the rule of law and fill the government with “honest and competent” specialists.
Artashes Geghamian, 53
An engineer by training who had worked his way up the hierarchy of the Soviet Armenian Communist Party, serving as mayor of Yerevan in 1989-90. A member of the Armenian parliament since 1995, Geghamian is backed by his National Unity party and several mainly leftist groups, including the Armenian Communist Party. His economic program calls for a greater government involvement in economic and social affairs. It promises to triple investments into the Armenian economy, eradicate mass unemployment, double the government’s tax revenues and at the same time “relieve the tax burden” on local businesses. Geghamian has implicitly promised to make Armenia part of the Russia-Belarus union, if he is elected president.
Aram Karapetian, 39
An electrical engineer by training who was granted a doctoral degree in political science in Russia in 1999. He has spent much of the past decade studying and working in Moscow. Karapetian is a newcomer in the Armenian political scene and has managed to make a name for himself in the last few months. Karapetian is primarily backed by the Union for Constitutional Rights, a small nationalist party. His campaign platform promises a firm stand on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and a 10-year tax exemption for all newly established businesses. He also vows to enforce fair business competition and crack down on corruption.
Robert Kocharian, 48
An electrical engineer by training who was born in and governed Nagorno-Karabakh from 1992 until he was appointed Armenian prime minister in 1997. Kocharian became president in 1998 shortly after he and the key government ministers forced then President Levon Ter-Petrosian into resignation. Kocharian says that socioeconomic situation in Armenia has improved under his rule. His economic program promises a “further strengthening of the foundations of liberal economics and property rights.” If reelected, Kocharian vows to ensure continued economic growth of 8 to 12 percent per annum, improve public services and turn Armenia into “the most organized state of the region.” That, he says, would translate into at least 35,000 new jobs each year. Kocharian also says Armenia should seek closer ties with both Russia and the West in line with its “complementary” foreign policy. On the question of Nagorno-Karabakh, he promises to achieve “international recognition” of the Karabakh Armenians’ right to self-determination. Kocharian is supported by more than a dozen political groups, notably the Republican Party of Armenia and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.
Vazgen Manukian, 56
A former mathematics professor at Yerevan State University who was one of the leaders of the 1988 movement for Karabakh’s reunification with Armenia. He served as Armenia’s first post-Communist prime minister in 1990-91 and as defense minister in 1992-93. Manukian, who leads the center-right National Democratic Union party, was the main opposition contender in the disputed presidential election of September 1996. He has campaigned for the February 19 vote with an emphasis on the rule of law, saying it is the main pre-requisite for Armenia’s development. Manukian promises to help the stagnant manufacturing sector with tax privileges and low-interest loans and to encourage private farmers to form agricultural cooperatives. He also vows to protect the domestic agricultural sector against cheap imports. Manukian also calls for the passage of a new constitution that would turn Armenia into a parliamentary republic.