Armenian Leader Poised to Win Vote Clouded by Shooting

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is poised for victory in elections next week after rivals withdrew from a campaign that’s been dominated by one candidate’s attempted assassination and another’s hunger strike.

Sargsyan, 59, has 69 percent support before the Feb. 18 vote, compared with 11 percent for his nearest challenger, Raffi Hovhannisyan, a former foreign minister, according to a Gallup poll published Feb. 9. Paruyr Hayrikyan, a former dissident who was shot and wounded in a Jan. 31 incident, has 5 percent backing, while Andrias Ghukasyan, who hasn’t eaten in 26 days and calls the ballot “fake,” has 1 percent, the survey showed.

Armenia, which borders Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan, is choosing a leader for the sixth time since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, with a Sargsyan win set to bolster last year’s parliamentary victory for his Republican Party. While the president failed in his first term to alleviate poverty that afflicts a third of the country’s three million people, the $10 billion economy is forecast to grow more than 4 percent in 2013.

The elections’ lack of competition “reflects the sad state of today’s political reality,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in the capital, Yerevan. “The opposition remains fairly weak due to open divisions between prominent leaders, a lack of true grassroots-based parties and a lack of democratic practices within existing political parties.”

Parliamentary Success

Sargsyan grew up in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region that broke free of Azerbaijan’s control after the Soviet collapse and is a frequent source of tension between the two nations. His 2008 election win triggered bloody scenes as 10 people died amid clashes between opposition protesters and police.

The Armenian leader, whose party won 68 of Parliament’s 131 seats at elections last May, has had to overcome a 14 percent plunge in gross domestic product in 2009 after Lehman Brothers Holding Inc.’s collapse triggered a global recession. The proportion of people living below the poverty line has grown to 35 percent from 23.5 percent in 2008, while unemployment was 5.9 percent at the end of 2012, official data show.

GDP will jump 6.2 percent this year after rising 7.2 percent in 2011, the government predicts. That’s more optimistic than the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank, which estimate growth of 5 percent and 4.3 percent, respectively. Armenia’s dram has lost 4.4 percent against the dollar during the last year compared with a 0.3 percent gain for the lari in neighboring Georgia, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Rivals Withdraw

Seven candidates will participate in next week’s vote, with three including former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratyan, forecast to get no more than 5 percent support each according to Gallup’s Jan. 25-Feb. 2 survey of 1,017 adults. It had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

Two suspects have been arrested after Hayrkyan was wounded in a shooting near his home late on Jan. 31. After having bullet fragments removed from his shoulder, he declined to seek a delay in the presidential vote.

Ghukasyan, a lawyer and radio station head, has refused to call off his hunger strike unless he’s visited by Health Minister Derenik Dumanyan.

Another three hopefuls decided against standing at all.

Gagik Tsarukyan, a businessman who leads the Prosperous Party and was considered Sargsyan’s main rival, said in December that he wouldn’t run, without explaining his decision. Levon ter-Petrosyan, Armenia’s first president, said he was too old for the battle at 68, while Parliament’s third-biggest party, Armenian Revolutionary Federation, said fielding a candidate would only add legitimacy to the elections.

The absence of challengers among the opposition will probably stem the possibility of violence after the elections, according to Giragosian.

“Conflict is lingering but will be deferred until a political transition after Sargsyan’s second term,” he said. “Post-election conflict or unrest is unlikely next week.”

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