- Title: ARMENIA: Presidential election preview
- Date: 19th February 2008
- Summary: FORMER PRESIDENT AND PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE LEVON TER-PETROSYAN WALKING UP TO STAGE AND WAVING TO SUPPORTERS PEOPLE CHANTING "LEVON"
- Embargoed: 5th March 2008 10:50
- Location: Armenia
- Country: Armenia
- Topics: International Relations,Domestic Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA5HWQYAZVRF43A39EHIGRYB5AG
- Aspect Ratio: 4:3
- Story Text: Armenia will vote in presidential elections on February 19 , which is likely to transfer power from the outgoing president to his trusted ally and prime minister Serzh Sarksyan. Current opinion polls put Sarksyan ahead of his competitors. A Sarksyan leadership would, in many aspects, be a continuation of President Robert Kocharyan's 10 years in office that have been marked by economic growth and a firm stand towards Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Armenia votes next week in a presidential election that is likely to transfer power from outgoing President Robert Kocharyan to his trusted ally and prime minister Serzh Sarksyan.
Opinion polls give Sarksyan, 53, a lead over the rest of the field, including former speaker of parliament Artur Baghdasaryan and Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the previous president who was forced to resign in 1998 but is now seeking a comeback.
Most observers predict that if Sarksyan is elected, his rule will be, in most aspects, a continuation of Kocharyan's 10 years in office that have been marked by economic growth and a firm stand towards Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Opinion polls give Sarksyan more than 50 percent of voter support, and he has said he hopes to win outright in Tuesday's first round of the election.
"A very good chance of being elected, approximately the same as Gallup and Populous (pollsters) are estimating," said Sarksyan in an interview with Reuters.
If he is elected president, Sarksyan will have to deal with the unresolved conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of oil-producing Azerbaijan whose ethnic Armenian population broke away in a 1990s war.
The independence of Serbia's province of Kosovo could strengthen a bid by Armenian-backed Nagorno-Karabakh to be recognised as a state, Sarksyan told Reuters in an interview.
Armenia's relations with Azerbaijan's ally Turkey are fraught, in part, because it refuses to recognise as genocide the killings of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turkey.
Sarksyan has promised to reduce the proportion of the population living in poverty to 10 percent from today's 25 percent during his five-year term, to bolster economic reforms and to create new jobs.
Sarkisyan's victory though is not guaranteed, as some analysts consider.
"I would prefer to have Levon Ter-Petrosyan as an opponent, if there is a second round," said Serzh Sarksyan.
Close associates for over 20 years, both Kocharyan and Sarksyan are from Nagorno-Karabakh.
They worked side by side to lead the separatist forces, then transferred their partnership to the Armenian capital.
Kocharyan, also 53, is constitutionally barred from serving a third consecutive term. He is expected to remain influential, but he has refused to disclose what role he will take until his replacement is inaugurated.
Some commentators have predicted Kocharyan could become prime minister, mimicking the arrangement in nearby Russia where outgoing President Vladimir Putin has said he may serve as prime minister if his protï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½gï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ Dmitry Medvedev wins the presidency.
Voters credit Kocharyan -- and by association Sarksyan -- with overseeing strong economic growth. Gross domestic product grew last year by
7 percent. Once blighted by power blackouts, capital Yerevan is now enjoying a construction boom.
Sarksyan's election chances are boosted by the fact the opposition has failed to unite around a single candidate.
Sarksyan's two rivals -- former speaker of parliament Artur Baghdasaryan and previous President Levon Ter-Petrosyan who was forced to resign in 1998 -- have failed to forge a last-minute alliance, boosting the premier's chances to win.
Earlier this month Ter-Petrosyan complained to Armenia's Constitutional Court that officials were causing "insurmountable obstacles" for his campaign. He said he was being denied equal access to the television airwaves.
Opposition parties already allege the campaign is unfair, setting up Tuesday's election to be a test for stability in a country that has only in the last few years recovered from a period of political convulsions.
"The existing authorities have the experience of the previous two presidential elections, they are ready for everything, for unfair approach, they will threaten citizens demanding they vote for them, but this time people will not let them do what they did during previous elections," Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the previous president and a candidate for presidency said.
Baghdasaryan's Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party was trounced by Sarksyan's Republican party in parliamentary elections last May, seen as a rehearsal for Tuesday's vote.
Nestled high in the Caucasus mountains, Armenia is in a region that is emerging as a vital transit route for oil exports from the Caspian Sea to energy-hungry world markets, though it has no pipelines of its own.
The energy flows could be threatened, analysts warn, if an unresolved conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan flares again into fighting. A dispute between Armenia and its other neighbour, Turkey, complicates Ankara's relations with the West.
Previous votes in Armenia have been followed by mass opposition protests alleging ballot fraud, and observers say more are possible after Tuesday's vote.
The Organisation for Security and Coopertation in Europe (OSCE) has sent to Armenia 300-strong observation mission.
"I have to observe the process, and how the preparations are going on, and this what we are here for, we will be very busy tomorrow and election day to observe the procedures and everything," said Heiko Meinhadt, OSCE observer after examining ballots.
Armenia is Moscow's only firm ally in a region where Russia and the West are competing for influence. It is home to a Russian military base and Russian firms control a significant chunk of the Armenian economy.
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