Disqualifications, hunger strikes and an assassination attempt have made for a very strange presidential contest.
YEREVAN/GYUMRI, Armenia -- A presidential candidate on a four-week hunger strike. Another candidate who declares he will not accept the election results -- even if he wins. A murky apparent assassination attempt. Up to one-third of eligible voters legally barred from casting ballots because they are out of the country. You might think this would be more than enough to make a presidential election exciting. But if you are talking about the February 18 vote in Armenia, you'd be mistaken.
Despite facing a slate of six challengers, incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian, according to all polls, seems set to cruise to a second term. Surveys show him winning about 70 percent of the vote, more than 25 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival.
But what the campaign has lacked in suspense it has more than made up for in strangeness. For instance, candidate Andrias Ghukasian, the 42-year-old owner of a Yerevan radio station, has been on a hunger strike since the campaign began. He is calling for Sarkisian's candidacy to be annulled and for international observers to boycott the vote. In a sense, he is running against the election itself.
Likewise, 49-year-old Arman Melikian, a former official in the government of the de facto independent Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh, has denounced the election in advance as "illegitimate."
"I will not accept the official results," he said. "Yes, even if I win," he added.
And then there is the story of Paruyr Hairikian, the 63-year-old head of the Self-Determination Party. He was shot and wounded outside his home on January 31. After considerable flip-flopping, he decided on February 10 to ask the Constitutional Court to delay the election for two weeks. But the next day he withdrew his request, saying that he couldn't bear the thought of prolonging Ghukasian's hunger strike.
Meanwhile, Armenia security forces have arrested two men who reportedly confessed to shooting Hairikian. And presidential candidate Vartan Sedrakian, a political neophyte who describes himself as an expert in Armenian epic poetry, says he fears he will be arrested because he knew the two suspects and that they had even been hired to distribute his campaign literature.
There are serious issues facing this South Caucasus country: navigating between Russia and the West, tensions with neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a faltering economy that is dominated by oligarchs and increasingly dependent on remittances sent from abroad, among others. But such matters have rarely made it into the campaign, which began on January 21 and has not featured any direct debates among the contenders. Instead, it has been a campaign of rhetoric and gestures.
One exchange between the U.S.-born former foreign minister, Raffi Hovannisian, who is Sarkisian's closest rival, and the incumbent was typical. Speaking at a rally in Armenia's second-largest city, Gyumri, on February 10, Hovannisian presented the choice facing voters in Manichean, albeit vague, terms: "This is not a struggle between Raffi and Serzh. This is not a battle between our political parties. It is a struggle for good, and good will win in the end." This prompted Sarkisian to respond at a rally in Yerevan the next day: "Yesterday, one of the candidates stated the upcoming election was going to be a choice between good and evil. All the candidates had, until that moment, been more or less tactful. So have they again begun dividing the nation into us and them, into good and evil? When will they realize the country is sick and tired of such divisions?"