Armenia’s fragmented opposition, reeling from its crushing defeat in recent parliamentary elections, is looking to join forces ahead of the presidential ballot due early next year. Leaders of the country’s main opposition parties have begun consultations on the possibility of fielding a single presidential candidate. It is widely agreed that without a consolidation, they will stand no chance of scuttling a planned handover of power from President Robert Kocharian to his longtime chief lieutenant, Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian.
The lack of opposition unity was one of the reasons why political allies of Kocharian and Sarkisian grabbed the overwhelming majority of parliament seats in the May 12 elections. Only two opposition groups won a minor presence in the National Assembly. More than a dozen others failed to clear the 5% vote threshold for entering the legislature under the system of proportional representation. According to the government-controlled Central Election Commission (CEC), they won a cumulative 20% of the vote, a figure comparable to the tally of the main election winner, Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). Many other Armenians unhappy with their government were too confused by the abundance of opposition contenders to go to the polls in the first place.
Most opposition leaders admitted after the vote that their failure to form major electoral alliances was a serious blunder and pledged to try to correct it in time for the presidential race. Some of them called for an immediate start of multiparty negotiations on a single opposition candidate. The first known attempt at such negotiations was a July 26 meeting in a Yerevan restaurant among top representatives of a dozen or so opposition parties. Paruyr Hayrikian, a prominent Soviet-era dissident who initiated the gathering, said afterward that participants avoided discussing concrete candidacies and contented themselves with talking about the political situation in Armenia and ways of changing it. Virtually all of them have stated publicly that they are ready, in principle, to sacrifice their presidential ambitions for the sake of regime change.
Local observers, however, question the sincerity of such statements. This is particularly true for three opposition heavyweights who took part in the meeting: Stepan Demirchian, Artashes Geghamian, and Artur Baghdasarian. Demirchian and Geghamian were Kocharian’s main challengers in the last presidential election. Although their parties failed to win a single parliament seat, they may still decide to have another shot at the presidency. Baghdasarian, who was parliament speaker from 2003 to 2006, is even more unlikely to withdraw from the presidential race in favor of another oppositionist because, according to the CEC figures, no opposition party polled more votes than his Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party. Incidentally, a senior member of Orinats Yerkir, Hovannes Markarian, predicted on July 24 that there will at best be “two or three” opposition candidates in the running.
The restaurant meeting was boycotted by two other prominent opposition politicians, who had served as prime ministers in the past. One of them, Vazgen Manukian, has repeatedly announced his intention to run for president. The other, Aram Sarkisian (no relation to the prime minister), leads Armenia’s most radical opposition party, Hanrapetutiun (Republic), which makes no secret of its support for former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.
Ter-Petrosian has kept an extremely low profile ever since being forced out of power in 1998 by the Kocharian-Sarkisian duo, but he is now emerging as another potential presidential hopeful. Political figures and newspapers sympathetic toward him increasingly make a case for his return to active politics, saying that he is the only person capable of consolidating the opposition and effecting regime change. They say he not only has the appropriate stature but would almost certainly be assured of Western backing in view of his conciliatory position on the Karabakh conflict.
There are indications that Ter-Petrosian is contemplating another presidential run. In particular, the reclusive ex-president made rare trips outside Yerevan in late July to meet with activists and other supporters of the former ruling Armenian National Movement party. The newspaper Zhamanak Yerevan reported on July 25 that he has recently received government-connected wealthy businessmen wondering whether he will enter the fray and assuring him that they would assist in his possible presidential bid. The paper said Ter-Petrosian has not given them a definite answer yet.
The key question is whether Ter-Petrosian is popular enough to return to power. Many Armenians still associate him with the severe socioeconomic hardship of the early 1990s, which followed the Soviet collapse and the onset of the war with Azerbaijan. As another newspaper, Aravot, which is edited by a former Ter-Petrosian press secretary, noted in a recent editorial, Ter-Petrosian may still be even more unpopular than Kocharian.
The government camp, meanwhile, is far more monolithic, with Prime Minister Sarkisian already having most of the so-called power class by his side. His party’s landslide election win was a massive boost to his presidential designs. The HHK is expected to officially nominate Sarkisian as its presidential candidate in October. Interestingly, Kocharian has still not publicly spoken out in favor of Sarkisian’s candidacy, adding to lingering speculation that he would like to see another, more pliant successor who would guarantee him a continued key role in government.
Kocharian may have played a part in the decision by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), a junior partner in the HHK-dominated governing coalition, not to endorse Sarkisian for the presidency. Sarkisian tried unsuccessfully to secure such an endorsement when he negotiated a new power-sharing deal with the pro-Kocharian nationalist party in the wake of the parliamentary elections. A top ARF leader, Armen Rustamian, reiterated on July 27 that the party will contest the presidential election with its own candidate.
Few believe that ARF’s candidate will be in a position to win the ballot. What he or she can do instead is to increase the likelihood of a run-off vote, which would force Sarkisian to again seek the ARF’s backing and perhaps offer it more government posts.
(Aravot, August 1, July 27; Hayots Ashkhar, July 28; Zhamanak Yerevan, July 25; RFE/RL Armenia Report, July 24)