By Emil Danielyan
Only a month ago Armenian President Robert Kocharian looked certain to face no serious competition in his drive to win a second term in office in Wednesday's presidential election. But four weeks of intense campaigning have left his reelection bid hanging in the balance.
Even though Kocharian and his top aides continue to assert that they will win outright in the first round of voting, they must be worried about the extent of public disaffection with the current Armenian leadership which came to light during the campaign. The four main opposition candidates have pulled unexpectedly large angry crowds across the country.
And if there were any doubts that the 48-year-old incumbent is now facing an uphill battle for political survival, they were dispelled on Sunday when tens of thousands of people rallied in support of his top challenger, Stepan Demirchian.
It was the largest anti-government demonstrators in Armenia in years. For Demirchian, it was also proof that his presidential win is a forgone conclusion. “Our meetings in the regions and in Yerevan today give me the right to state that the regime change has been achieved in people’s minds and hearts. February 19 can only formalize the people’s victory,” he declared.
The Yerevan rally was the culmination of Demirchian’s vigorous campaign. The 43-year-old opposition leader has enjoyed particularly warm receptions in Armenia’s rural areas. The three other major opposition contenders -- Artashes Geghamian, Vazgen Manukian and Aram Karapetian -- have also held large gatherings, though they aroused less public enthusiasm.
However, Kocharian and over a dozen political parties supporting him appear undaunted by the opposition inroads, trying to capitalize on the slow, but steady improvement of the socioeconomic situation in Armenia. Campaigning in Yerevan’s blue-collar Shengavit district, Kocharian summed up his message to the voters: “Our chosen path is a right one. We just have to be a little patient and work more single-mindedly.”
The main trump card of the presidential camp is Armenia’s accelerating economic growth, which hit a record-high rate of almost 13 percent last year, with exports alone surging by 50 percent. The International Monetary Fund described as “strong” the country’s macroeconomic performance in a statement last week.
Kocharian and his allies say that most Armenians impoverished by the 1991 Soviet collapse will at last feel benefits of the growth a few years later if they allow the current government to continue its policies. Their campaign platform promises to keep up the growth at an average annual rate of 10 percent. A regime change, they warn, would jeopardize further economic expansion.
This argument strikes a chord with quite a few Armenians who have either become better off in recent years or expect things to improve in the near future.
But most of those who have attended opposition rallies do not buy it. Their discontent is stoked by the opposition candidates who claim that the official growth figures are inflated. They say that the president has failed to protect the rule of law and rein in his inner circle allegedly mired in corruption.
Most opposition candidates have vague economic platforms and often make populist pledges. Geghamian has particularly excelled in that endeavor, promising cheap credit to stagnant Soviet-era industries and government subsidies to the agriculture.
But interestingly, Demirchian has won over the majority of the opposition electorate without having to talk and promise a lot. A weak orator, he owes his populist appeal to the fact he is the son of Karen Demirchian, the man who ruled Soviet Armenia from 1974-1988. It was an era of relative prosperity about which many impoverished people are nostalgic.
Demirchian Sr. narrowly lost to Kocharian in the previous, 1998 presidential election which international monitors said failed to meet democratic standards. In October 1999 he was assassinated together with seven other top officials in a shock terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament. Relatives of the attack victims still suspect Kocharian of masterminding the killings.
But in his speech at the Yerevan rally, Demirchian Jr. denied being motivated by personal revenge.
Tall, with thick black hair, Demirchian bears a striking resemblance to his late father, in both his bearing and his voice. That seems to have been enough for inheriting much of the former Communist boss’s popularity. Campaigning across Armenia, Demirchian was greeted very much like his assassinated father, was greeted much as his father had been greeted in the past, with villagers slaughtering rams and bulls in his honor -- an ancient Caucasian custom in welcoming respected guests.
The previous Armenian elections were tainted with serious irregularities, and the opposition leaders fear that the authorities will again resort to fraud. They have already accused the Kocharian campaign of bullying their supporters and illegally using government resources.
Kocharian insists he is interested in a free and fair vote because he believes his chances for victory are far higher than those of his challengers. Wednesday’s voting will be monitored by more than 250 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The international legitimacy of the vote hinges to a large extent on their findings.