Personality trumps policy in Armenian politics

By bne IntelliNews April 10, 2012

Clare Nuttall in Yerevan -

Suspicion is building that Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is looking to make a break with the past, hunting for new allies to replace current coalition partner Prosperous Armenia after parliamentary elections on May 6. The potential change illustrates the supremacy of personality over policy in Armenian politics.

Featuring many supporters of former President Robert Kocharyan (1998-2008), Prosperous Armenia - which originally helped Sargsyan into office - looks to be facing a tough fight to maintain its position in the upcoming elections, as relations with the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) have deteriorated recently. Sarkisyan's move to reach out to bitter rival - and Armenia's first president - Levon Ter-Petrossian, as well as other opposition leaders, illustrates the seriousness of the threat to the junior partner's role in the government.

Reflecting that challenge, Prosperous Armenia (PA) was first out of the blocks in launching its campaign for the forthcoming vote, hosting a rally on April 8 in Abovyan - home town of leader Gagik Tsarukyan. It's notable that the PA event was much larger and higher profile than the RPA's opening shot. The senior coalition partner launched its campaign in a low-key event on April 9.

Speaking in Abovyan, Tsarukyan said PA will focus on social issues, job creation and reducing emigration. He also called on voters to judge the party on its record in government. "A task well done, rather than friends in high places, is the main value for the party,"he said according to local press.

However, "Armenia has politics of personality rather than policy," Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan, tells bne. "We are now seeing negotiations between [two former presidents and the current one] ... Ter-Petrossian is in dialogue with Sargsyan against Kocharyan. The government wants to weaken [PA] and bring in the opposition."

All change

Kocharyan and PA backed the candidacy of his former prime minister and fellow Nagorno Karabakhi Sargsyan when he came to the end of his second term, and under Armenian election rules was unable to stand again. However, since then Sargsyan has increasingly distanced himself from Kocharyan politically - most importantly through his decision to start a dialogue with Azerbaijan, including regular face-to-face meetings with Azeri leader Ilham Alilev. He has also tried to build relations with Turkey, with the aim of re-opening the border between the two. Success would provide a huge economic boost for Armenia, although the process has stalled recently.

"Sargsyan and Kocharyan were born at the same time, in the same place but they are very different men," says Giragosyan, contrasting the charismatic sports-loving former president with the low-key style of the chess-playing incumbent. "Sargsyan came to power with a tainted legacy because of the events of March 2008, which happened because of decisions made before Sargsyan came to power. So there was a divide from day one."

When the result of the February 19 election was announced in 2008, it gave Sargsyan a 52.8% majority. The opposition, led by Ter-Petrossian, took to the streets, and two weeks of mass protests later, demonstrators were violently dispersed by police, resulting in the deaths of at least 10 people. The rift between the government and opposition has persisted since, but could now be healed, with regular dialogue between Sargsyan and Ter-Petrossian underway.

The upcoming vote will be Armenia's first general election since February 2008. In addition to opening dialogue with the opposition, both Sargsyan and Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan have promised the most free and fair elections ever held in Armenia. However, it is not yet clear whether the transparency promised at the top officials will be adhered to at the local level, with recent local elections reported to have maintained the use of ballot-stuffing and other irregularities.

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