Polling stations opened for Armenia's presidential elections on February 18, with voters expected to re-elect incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan with a wide margin.
A poll carried out by Gallup International on February 2-5 found that 68% of respondents would vote for Sargsyan. Heritage Party chairman Raffi Hovannisian was in second place with 24% of the vote, followed by Hayrikyan in third place.
A second term for Sargsyan has been expected from the start of the campaigning on January 21, and the resulting lacklustre competition has been notable only for an assassination attempt on candidate Paruyr Hayrikyan. Another of the runners, Andrias Gukasian, spent the campaign on hunger strike in support of his accusations against Sarkisian of widespread vote-buying.
Claims of election fraud against the president are nothing new. The start of Sargsyan's first term in February 2008 was marred by mass protest as opposition leaders claimed that the vote was rigged. Violent clashes between demonstrators and police resulted in 10 deaths, and a month-long state of emergency followed.
Sargsyan also came under pressure when the international economic crisis hit Armenia in 2009. Heavily dependent on metals exports and remittance payments, the economy contracted by almost 15% during the year. However, since it has remained in recovery mode, despite the double dip globally, with GDP growing by 3.9% in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. It forecast a slight increase to 4% in 2013.
Sargsyan has also built bridges with political opponents during his time in office, starting a dialogue between the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and the opposition Armenian National Congress (ANC) coalition, led by his former opponent in the 2008 elections, Levon Ter-Petrossian. Alongside Gagik Tsarukian, who leads former HHK coalition partner Prosperous Armenia, Ter-Petrossian declined to stand in the latest election.
HHK increased its majority in the May 2012 parliamentary elections, allowing it to form a majority without Prosperous Armenia. Presuming his return to the presidential office, Sargsyan will now have a strong mandate to make changes in his second term.
Foreign policy initiatives are likely to be front and centre, according to Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center. "We should expect a bold move in terms of foreign policy similar to the protocols between Armenia and Turkey after the February 2008 election. 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," Giragosian told bne in January.
While a repeat of the protests and violence following the 2008 elections are not expected - Sargsyan has promised the most fair and open elections in Armenia to date - observers suggest concern persists, albeit over more subtle leveraging of voters this time around.
A report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) observers issued on February 7, notes: "While the state authorities have declared their intention to conduct elections in line with OSCE commitments, the distinction between campaign activities and state functions appears to be blurred..."
"The official campaign period, which started on 21 January and ends at midnight on 16 February, has thus far been characterized by low-key activities. The campaign of incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan is the most visible. The overall campaign environment is partly influenced by the decision of several parliamentary parties to not nominate candidates," the report adds.
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