An odd affair: Armenia’s Presidential election needs to be more than about ticking boxes.

On 18 February 2013 Armenians go to the polls to elect their President for the next five years. All three South Caucasus countries will have presidential elections this year, but in Georgia and Azerbaijan polling is expected to be in October.

Armenia held parliamentary elections not so long ago, in May 2012. These elections were considered a step forward in the country’s transition to democracy. Some aspects of the poll were problematic, but a result which enabled all the main political forces in the country to enter parliament was positively assessed. February’s Presidential election was considered the logical next step forward. The stakes here are however higher.

Unlike in the Parliamentary elections this time the winner takes all, and in the circumstances that have developed since May, there is little doubt who that winner is going to be.

So far everybody has been going through the motions. The Central Elections Commission worked through the New Year and Christmas holidays to accept the nominations. It then went through the process of weeding out those of the 15 candidates who were initially registered but who could not make the approximately 20,000 USD deposit that is required by law (and which will be forfeited if the candidate does not get 5% of the vote). Seven of the fifteen candidates did not, and have been eliminated leaving eight: incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan and seven others. It is difficult to describe the seven others as non-entities, since they are not that. Some have long and distinguished political careers, such as former Foreign Ministers Raffi Hovhanessian and former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian. Others also are recognisable personalities due to their political activity (Melikyan ) or civil society or patriotic work (Harutyunyan, Hayrikyan, Sedrakyan and Ghukasyan).

However it is equally not possible to say that these were the candidates that the Armenian people were expecting to be voting for in this election. The candidates have a difficult job to inspire and grow in stature to the point where they can provide a credible challenge to the incumbent – and only five weeks to do it.

There is then the position of some of the main Armenian political forces: The Prosperous Armenia Party, the Dashnaks, the Armenian National Congress who have declared that they will not support any candidate. Quite what the strategy is here is not clear. Some may see it as a boycott, but others simply describe it as aloofness.

One of the current President’s seven challengers, Andreas Ghoukasian, has now also written to his six colleagues encouraging them to withdraw en masse and leave the President alone, to cook in his own stew, so to say. It is unlikely that they will do so.

A lot of Armenian politics takes place behind the scenes and the Armenian people can only speculate what is going on – a very unhealthy aspect of Armenian politics that does not contribute to a democratic transition at all. Most of the speculation revolves around the Prosperous Armenia Party, until last year Sargsyan’s government coalition partner, but since May outside government, even though it does not like to call itself an opposition. There was speculation that its leader Gagik Tsarukyan might contest the Presidential election. He left everybody guessing until the last moment and then he said he would not, but that he would not support anybody else either. For some, the dream candidate would have been Vartan Oscanian, veteran ex foreign minister. He seemed to be preparing to throw in his hat and everybody agrees that he would have given Sargsyan a run for his money. However soon after getting elected to Parliament in May (he was the second person on the list of Prosperous Armenia Party) he became the subject of an investigation by the Ministry of State Security who were accusing him and an NGO he led, of money laundering. The investigation remains wrapped in mystery and controversy. Armenia first President, Levon Ter Petrossian declared himself too old to run, and the second President, Robert Kocharian said he was not interested.

With serious economic challenges ahead; a state of semi war with Azerbaijan, and under economic blockade by Turkey, the Armenian Presidency may seem like a poisoned chalice. President Sargsyan may also have done enough in the last five years to secure a level of popularity with his calm and cautious approach which may suit the Armenian temperament. But the current situation around the election still remains very odd and may contribute very little to Armenia’s political future.

Enter the international community. Armenia needs to get a clean bill of health on this election from the international community if it is to secure the assistance it hopes to get from the EU and others over the coming years. An OSCE/ODIHR mission has deployed already with its core and long term team; more than two hundred observers will join them on election day. The mission is led by Heidi Tagliavini, an experienced and no-nonsense Swiss diplomat, who some think was more needed observing last October’s difficult Georgian elections, and its tense build up and outcome. She has already made a press conference in which she is quoted as saying that the mission is interested in the process, not the result. Indeed. But, up to a point. There has been a tendency in ODIHR in recent years to turn election observation into a check list. Tick enough boxes and you’re ok. Expectations from Tagliavini will be higher.

Everything indicates that it will be possible to tick enough boxes come next February for one to say that the Armenian election process was in line with international standards. This is commendable and a step forward, but is far from being the whole story. Whether this election will be a free and fair expression of the will of the Armenian people is a much bigger question, that may be more difficult to answer.

This commentary was prepared by the CEW Editorial Team.
photo collage of the eight presidential candidates in the forthcoming Armenian Presidential elections courtesy of ArmeniaNow web portal.