Below is an article that has appeared as an Editorial in “Khaleej Times” Arabic daily of Dubai on 8 February 2003, before the first round of the Armenian Elections that took place on 19 February 2003.
Eye on Armenia
“Khaleej Times”, 8 February 2003
ARMENIA will face what could be the biggest test yet of its democratic credentials this month when it holds presidential elections that President Robert Kocharian hopes will give him another five-year term. The 1998 Armenian elections were strongly critisised by the United States and Europe and they are again keeping a watchful eye on the intensifying election campaign.
This time around the scrutiny will be far more focused. They perceive this will be a real test of Armenia's international commitments. February 19 vote is considered as a 'big challenge for Armenia'. It is a test this time to see whether the authorities have progressed far enough to run an election, which is really clean and really meets international standards. There is going to be a lot of interest internationally on this. Eleven candidates representing virtually the country's entire political spectrum are vying for the presidency. Kocharian, who is far ahead of his rivals in opinion polls, is aiming for a landslide victory in the first round but he is not that popular enough to avoid a risky runoff with an opposition contender. Also in contention are two former prime ministers: Vazgen Manukian and Aram Sargsian. Very often, in countries where elections are manipulated, the manipulation is found not so much in the stuffing of ballot boxes, but rather that the results somehow change as they move up the tabulation process. Armenia's Central Election Commission has promised to consider many anti-fraud suggestions like publishing a precinct-by-precinct breakdown of election results.
An additional source of concern is Kocharian's decision to appoint powerful Defence Minister Serzh Sarkisian as his campaign manager. Voting irregularities have become a tradition in Armenia, with none of the elections held since independence judged by international monitors to have been democratic. Negative international reaction did not, however, prevent Armenia from joining the Council of Europe two years ago. Still, membership of the unofficial club of European democracies brings with it higher international expectations of political reform, which might explain why the West's patience with Yerevan now seems to be wearing thin. Elections will be put under a microscope to a much larger extent than it was in the past.