Presidential Elections in the South Caucasus: Who Armenia and Azerbaijan are voting for

2018 / 02 / 28

Author:  Giorgi Turmanidze


For South Caucasus, 2018 is a Presidential Election year. Apart from Georgia, elections will also be held in Armenia and Azerbaijan. If in Armenia the election date was known beforehand, the appointment of snap elections in Azerbaijan can be considered to be a surprising move.


Main Forecasts

  • In the Armenian Presidential Election the Parliament, controlled by the governing party, will elect the government candidate, Armen Sargsyan, as the fourth President of Armenia. The actual ruler of the country, on the other hand, will be the incumbent President, Serzh Sargsyan, who will likely become Prime Minister.
  • The appointment of Presidential Elections in Azerbaijan six months earlier than planned is due to economic, domestic and external political factors, which must ensure the victory of the incumbent President, Ilham Aliyev, for the fourth time.


Armenia – New President and the Parliamentary Governance Model

Until 10 March 2018, the Parliament of Armenia will elect a new President. The Presidential governance model currently in power in the country will also be altered. Based upon the constitutional amendments undertaken as a result of the 6 December 2015 referendum, the powers of the President will be reduced after April 2018 and the country will move to the Parliamentary model of governance. According to the constitutional amendments:

  • President will be elected by the Parliament, not the citizens.
  • President will be elected for a single, 7-year tenure.
  • President cannot be a member of any political party.
  • New President will have no influence on the foreign and defense policy of Armenia. The armed forces will be under the control of the cabinet with the Prime Minister assuming the position of Commander in Chief.

One of the major reasons for moving to the Parliamentary model of governance is considered to be the end of the second and last Presidential tenure of Serzh Sargsyan. Given the fact that he cannot be elected President for the third time and refused to make amendments that would allow him to do so, moving to the Parliamentary mode of governance is the most legitimate way for Serzh Sargsyan to stay in politics by assuming the position of Prime Minister. In order to maintain power, it was important for the 63-year-old Sargsyan to not only introduce constitutional amendments but also select a Presidential candidate well-disposed towards him, as he will be needed to name the candidate for Prime Minister after being elected.

For a long time, there was ambiguity in Armenia about who would become the fourth President of the country. The candidacies of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edward Nalbandian, Chairman of the Constitutional Court, Gagik Harutyunyan and the de-facto ex-President of Nagorno Karabakh, Arkadi Ghukasian, were being named.

On 18 January, during his discussion with the elites Serzh Sargsyan indicated what the fourth President of the country must be like. According to his assessment, the new President must have connections with Armenia as well as the diaspora, be fluent in foreign languages and must not be a member of any political party. On the following day, 19 January, Serzh Sargsyan named Armen Sargsyan, Ambassador of Armenia to UK, as a Presidential candidate of the governing Republican Party.

64-year-old Armen Sargsyan worked in Cambridge University back in 1984. After the disputed Presidential Elections of 1996 he was appointed Prime Minister. However, his tenure as Prime Minister lasted just four months. After the 2008 Presidential Elections, when the government of Armenia was harshly criticized by the West, Armen Sargsyan worked on fixing Serzh Sargsyan’s image in the Western countries.

According to Serzh Sargsyan’s statement, he wants the President to be elected in first round; however, given the political balance in the Parliament, second round may become necessary. In order to elect the President in the first round, votes of the ¾ of the MPs are necessary, whilst in the second round, only 3/5. If the President is not selected in the second round of voting either, top two candidates will participate in the third round and the winner will be decided through simple majority. After the 2017 Parliamentary Elections, the governing Republican Party possesses 58 out of 105 mandates, whilst its coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, also known as Dashnaktsutyun, controls seven mandates. Of the remaining two parties, the Tsarukyan Alliance has 31 mandates and the Way Out Alliance has nine mandates, which is not enough to influence the ultimate results of the vote.

In the case of Armen Sargsyan’s victory, the likelihood of which is high, his first important step will be to present the candidate for Prime Minister. The incumbent Prime Minister, Karen Karapetyan has strong support from the local businesses and he has expressed interest to remain in the position he holds now. However, numerous indications suggest that Serzh Sargsyan might occupy this position, whilst Karapetyan will serve as Vice Prime Minister. During the past weeks Serzh Sargsyan clearly stated that he wishes to serve as Prime Minister in the new political system. In their own right, the leaders of the governing party also make no secret of the fact that they want Serzh Sargsyan to become Prime Minister.


Azerbaijan – Fourth Term of Ilham Aliyev

On 5 February 2018, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, signed a directive on appointing early Presidential elections. According to the Election Code of Azerbaijan, Presidential elections that were supposed to be held on 17 October 2018 will be held on 11 April 2018. According to the President’s Advisor, Ali Hasanov, the reason for this decision was for the elections to not coincide with “important domestic and external events” planned throughout the year, such as the cycle of events in honor of 100 years of the democratic republic of Azerbaijan, international humanitarian forum and others. It is interesting that just several days earlier, on 1 February 2018, the Executive Secretary of the Party and Deputy Prime Minister, Ali Akhmedov, stated that Aliyev would be the candidate of the governing party in the October elections.

Already on 8 February 2018, the New Azerbaijan Party named Aliyev as its Presidential candidate during the 6th convention. Aliyev will be participating in the elections for the fourth time since 2003. In the case of success, which is not doubted by anyone, the next Presidential tenure for Aliyev will be seven years. The tenure of the President increased from five to seven years as a result of the constitutional amendments based on the 26 September 2016 referendum. Earlier, in 2009, a referendum removed a limit of just two tenures for the President.

The appointment of snap Presidential elections may be caused by economic, as well as domestic and external political factors:

  • Economic Factors:  due to low prices of oil the economic development of Azerbaijan for the past several years has slowed down considerably. However, lately, parallel to the growth of prices of oil there is a noticeable positive dynamic in the economy of the country. Hence, Aliyev may not want to hold elections in October, when the economic problems could well reappear.
  • Domestic Political Factors:
    • The appointment of snap Presidential elections will not give the already weak opposition time to prepare properly.
    • Part of the experts also connects the early elections with the name of Ilgar Mammadov, who was arrested in 2013 and is considered to be a political prisoner. According to the assessment by Thomas De Waal, Mammadov is a figure similar to Alexei Navalny and he can change the status-quo. Mammadov is a leader of Republican Alternative Movement, which is considered as the most authoritative opposition group. He was planning to participate in the elections, refused a pardon and an offer to move abroad.
  • External-Political Factors:
    • Russian Presidential elections will be held on 18 March and the main aim of criticism for the West in that period will be Russia, whilst Azerbaijan will stay out of the spotlight.
    • The almost simultaneous electoral processes taking place in Russia and Armenia will reduce the likelihood of foreign involvement in Azerbaijan’s election campaign. In 2013, before the Presidential elections, the members of Azerbaijani diaspora created a lobby group in Russia. According to the suspicions of Baku, their aim was to undermine Aliyev’s power.
    • International observing organizations will have little time to prepare for monitoring the elections.

Principal Conclusions

  • The election of Armen Sargsyan as the President of Armenia must ensure the continuation of the political career of Serzh Sargsyan after he leaves the Presidential office. If we take into account that Armen Sargsyan worked largely abroad and was little involved in the domestic politics of the country, he will find it difficult to engage in his own game due to the lack of domestic political connections and support of powerful groups. This “weakness” of Armen Sargsyan, on the other hand, will enable the governing party, which controls the Parliament, to ensure that Serzh Sargsyan becomes Prime Minister under the new parliamentary governance, thereby enabling the party to maintain power.
  • By appointing snap Presidential elections parallel to the Armenian and Russian Presidential elections Ilham Aliyev will manage to “share” the impending western criticism with Armenia and Russia. At the same time considering other domestic political and economic factors, Aliyev will ensure yet another, 7-year legitimation of its power.

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