2008 Already?: Parliamentary elections seen as warm up for the big show

Despite the fact that Armenia’s internal political life is currently focused on the parliamentary elections due next year, there is much talk about the presidential election slated for 2008. That's because today, the country is on the threshold of a cardinal change of power, with many politicians, including the most probable contenders for the highest state post, noting the shift in authority from the president to the parliament.

In particular, the incumbent Minister of Defense and Secretary of the Presidential Security Council Serzh Sargsyan, whose chances in the 2008 presidential election are estimated as quite high, during the special congress of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPА) that took place on July 22, 2006 unequivocally stated: “My participation in the presidential election will depend on the results of the parliamentary election, on how many votes the RPA receives.”

The main event of that convention was Sargsyan’s election as a member of the RPA Board. It is noteworthy that among Armenia’s four defense ministers (Vazgen Manukyan, Vazgen Sargsyan, Vagharshak Harutyunyan, Serzh Sargsyan) only Vagharshak Harutyunyan was a regular officer. The rest were civilians. We should also be reminded that during the last parliamentary elections in 2003 Serzh Sargsyan, not being a member of the RPA, was second on the party’s slate.

However, why does the Minister of Defense of Armenia see a direct link between the results of the parliamentary election and his nomination for presidency? Besides the obvious connection between these major political events, there is another nuance worthy of paying attention to.

As we already reported, according to the amendments to the Constitution of Armenia adopted in last year’s referendum, the center of political weight has moved towards parliamentarism. Currently, the National Assembly still fulfills the function of rubber-stamping the government composition proposed by the president and in case of failing to approve it risks being dissolved by the head of state. But under the amended Basic Law in nominating a candidate for prime minister, the president will have to reckon with the opinion of the parliamentary majority.

“It is not a secret to anyone that after the 2007 elections the real power in the country will pass to the prime minister and the chairman of the National Assembly, and the president will possess much more modest powers and will act as the English queen,” parliamentary expert and political analyst Marina Mkrtchyan says. “It seems that under the amended Constitution, the post of the Minister of Defense will not play a key role in political processes.”

It is for this reason that presidential hopefuls place primary emphasis on the results of parliamentary elections. Moreover, the role of the president in governing the executive power is essentially reduced. Under the Constitution currently in force, it is the president who chairs government meetings. If the prime minister does it, he does it with the president’s actual consent. The head of state also approves decisions of the government and defines the structure of the government. According to the changes, the powers of presiding over government meetings are transferred to the prime minister. The necessity for the approval by the president of the governmental decisions disappears, and the structure of the executive power is defined by a law.

On the day when the RPA was holding its tenth special congress, many recollected the fifth special congress of the party, which took place in January 1999 and from the platform of which the then-Minister of Defense Vazgen Sargsyan declared: “The next Minister of Defense will be not engaged in politics if processes go in the right direction....” Vazgen Sargsyan did not become a member of the RPA, though he was its leader.

So Serzh Sargsyan is not the first Minister of Defense who decided to connect his political future with the RPA. Why does the party of republicans so actively attract powerful ministers? There are several theories. According to one of the popular versions, Serzh Sargsyan’s membership in the RPA will bring to republicans 40,000 to 50,000 additional votes. (According to a number of polls, Sargsyan’s stable electorate, also taking into account the administrative resource – local government leaders with their families and close surroundings, sympathizers, army, etc. makes 40,000 to 50,000 votes.) Another idea proposes that republicans are more interested in Sargsyan securing the votes of pro-governmental forces still hesitating between the Prosperous Armenia party of Gagik Tsarukyan and the prime minister's party than in the army votes.

It is rumored that this is exactly what forced the Minister of Defense to at last announce his intention to join the RPA. Otherwise the Prosperous Armenia party, which, according to leader Gagik Tsarukyan, today has 200,000 members – compared to the RPA membership of 32,000 -- could draw other pro-governmental forces to its side. According to some forecasts, the RPA-Prosperous Armenia party alliance is possible already before the elections – like in 1999 when, the RPA under the name “Unity,” formed its alliance with the People’s Party of Karen Demirchyan. Others believe that they will create a coalition after their appearance in parliament. Anyhow, by this time both parties are unconditional favorites of the pre-election parliamentary race.

It is not a secret that the outcome of the presidential election in 2008 in many respects will be conditioned by the results of the parliamentary election in 2007. The aforementioned constitutional amendments generated forecasts that predict as a result of the election, Sargsyan will hold a post of the chairman of the National Assembly and will control the parliamentary majority.

Political adviser Garnik Isagulyan, stated on October 28 that it is Sargsyan who is the most preferable presidential candidate “as he is the most prepared politician.” In many analysts’ opinion, by his statement the adviser voiced the position of his boss – the current president of Armenia Robert Kocharyan.