By Armen ZakarianScores of Armenian politicians, government officials and prominent intellectuals are lining up to become members of a support group that will nominate President Robert Kocharian as a candidate in the February presidential elections. The powerful Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian will likely be appointed his reelection campaign manager.
Sources say Kocharian wants his pre-election support base to be as broad and balanced as possible, anxious not to offend any of his loyalists. The incumbent will be nominated by a non-partisan “group of civic initiative” which is expected to meet in Yerevan on November 26.
Under Armenia’s election law, such a group must have at least 100 members. Figures close to Kocharian told RFE/RL on Saturday that the presidential administration initially decided to admit 200 supporters, but, faced with a far greater influx of applications, eventually set the number at 300.
The pro-Kocharian support group will be a mixed bag, comprising mid-level representatives of loyalist parties, government officials, pro-establishment intellectuals and even leaders of some youth organizations. The group, sources said, will perform largely ceremonial functions by first filing for the president’s registration with the Central Election Commission and then submitting at least 35,000 signatures in his support.
An individual familiar with Kocharian’s thinking said the head of state wants to avoid giving preferential treatment to any loyal political group, including Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK). The Republicans, who control many local governments, are a crucial component of the president’s power base which also includes the entire state apparatus, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and Orinats Yerkir parties.
A leading HHK member, Tigran Torosian, claimed that his party is not unhappy with its role in the unfolding election campaign. He said the HHK will endorse Kocharian’s reelection bid at a congress scheduled for November 30.
Visiting the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague on Friday, Kocharian pledged to ensure
the freedom and fairness of the upcoming ballot, saying that he is committed to Armenia’s democratization.
However, that commitment was on Saturday questioned by a private election monitoring group from the United States. The delegation of the U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI), which was in Armenia this week to assess electoral conditions, warned that the authorities have yet to put in place fair campaign conditions, ensure the impartiality of election commissions and enforce safeguards against vote rigging.
Similar concerns were expressed earlier this week by the Yerevan-based ambassadors of the United States and other leading Western powers.
“Armenia continues to suffer from its troubled electoral history,” NDI experts said in a statement.
“The 2002-2003 election process will indicate which direction the country is headed…Should it fail to achieve its obligations to respect this fundamental right [to change government], those who seek to govern will again do so without a clear popular mandate and its attendant legitimacy,” the statement said, in a veiled reminder that Kocharian’s controversial election as president in 1998 was criticized by Western election monitors.