Clare Nuttall in Astana -
With the two main opposition groups opting not to take part in Armenia's February 18 presidential election, the incumbent Serzh Sargsyan is on track to easily secure a second term in office. In contrast to his first term, which got off to a shaky start when his victory was marred by violent protests and allegations of vote rigging, Sargsyan is likely to embark on his second and final term with a strong mandate to carry out anti-corruption and foreign policy reforms, and may also be tempted to improve relations with Armenia's neighbours, Azerbaijan and Turkey.
A total of eight candidates were officially registered at an extraordinary session of the Central Electoral Commission on January 14. Aside from Sargsyan, the two political heavyweights are Heritage Party leader Raffi Hovannisian, and former prime minister and Liberty Party leader Hrant Bagratian. More notable is the absence of the leader of the second largest party in parliament, the Prosperous Armenia Party, and the head of the Armenian National Congress (ANC) opposition coalition.
Gagik Tsarukyan, head of Prosperous Armenia, the main coalition partner of Sargsyan's Republican Party until the May 2012 parliamentary elections, announced on December 12 that he would neither stand in the elections nor support any other candidate. His announcement came just four days after a private meeting with Sargsyan, giving rise to speculation about a behind-the-scenes agreement. However, Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center, points out that the move was not unexpected, since the wealthy businessman was "never fully respected or accepted as a viable presidential contender."
Meanwhile, the current leader of the ANC and the first president of an independent Armenia from 1991 to 1998, Levon Ter-Petrossian, has also declined to stand this time. Ter-Petrossian stood again for president in 2008 and was runner-up to Sargsyan in that disputed election, his defeat prompting his supporters to take to the streets in protest against alleged vote rigging. Ten people - eight protestors and two law enforcement officers - were killed when the protesters were violently dispersed from a square in central Yerevan.
However, Ter-Petrossian's ANC, which now holds seven seats in the parliament, has entered into a dialogue with the ruling Republican Party. "Ter-Petrossian has felt it was wiser not to stand at this time, but rather to work as a constructive opposition within the existing system. He has, I believe correctly, judged that his efforts as an agent of change have passed and at this point it would actually be counter-productive to stand," Giragosian tells bne.
Because of the post-election violence and the vote-rigging allegations, it took a long time for the newly elected Sargsyan to be seen as fully legitimate, and to step out from the shadow of his predecessor, former president Robert Kocharyan. After coming to office, however, Sargsyan has diverged from Kocharyan in the foreign policy arena with his attempts to build bridges with Turkey and work towards a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan. Sargsyan became the first Armenian president to hold face-to-face negotiations with his Azeri counterpart, meeting several times with Ilham Aliyev, although there have been few concrete results from the talks so far.
Sargsyan also got a strong boost from the May 2012 parliamentary elections, which gave his Republican Party 69 seats in the parliament, allowing the party to dispense with its former coalition partner Prosperous Armenia. Despite criticism from international observers, the 2012 elections were generally recognised as Armenia's cleanest and most competitive to date. A relatively fair fight is also expected in 2013, especially given that the president has little to fear from any of his opponents.
In his pre-election speeches, Sargsyan has appeared confident about his re-election, and pledged to introduce new reforms to strengthen the rule of law and improve the economy if re-elected. "There is no doubt in my mind that we will win and will see the Armenia of our dreams - strong, prosperous and secure," he told the Republican Party congress on December 15.
Sargsyan also defended his government's handling of the recent economic crisis, which caused the economy to contract by around 15% in 2009. Since then it has returned to modest growth, expanding by 3.9% in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. Inspired by what's happened in neighbouring Georgia, grassroots pressure for more progress in tackling corruption has also been growing. However, Armenia remains in 105th place out of 174 countries on Transparency International's 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Giragosian forecasts that in his second and under the constitution final term as president, Sargsyan may seek to make his mark in the foreign policy arena. "Given a second mandate, Sargsyan should be able to begin thinking of his legacy," he says. "We should expect a bold move in terms of foreign policy similar to the protocols between Armenia and Turkey after the February 2008 election, where Sargsyan will feel emboldened by his new mandate to actually carry forth domestic reforms and perhaps again try making a move toward Turkey or Azerbaijan."
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