Armenia’s President Robert Kocharian and his top political allies have cut a new power-sharing deal resulting from their landslide victory in the May 12 parliamentary elections. In a decree made public on June 8, Kocharian formally approved the composition of a coalition government headed by his longtime close associate Serge Sarkisian and dominated by representatives of the latter’s Republican Party (HHK), the main election winner.
The development came after almost a month of difficult negotiations between the HHK and two other major pro-Kocharian parties, Prosperous Armenia and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, also known as Dashnaktsutiun. Sarkisian agreed to share power with them, even though his party won an outright majority in parliament and was able to single-handedly form a government. He is clearly trying to mobilize broad-based political support for his intention to succeed Kocharian in a presidential election due in early 2008.
Officially, the new ruling coalition is made up of the HHK and Prosperous Armenia, which came in a distant second in the parliamentary elections. Their leaders signed a corresponding memorandum in Kocharian’s office on June 6. They then signed a separate “cooperation agreement” with Dashnaktsutiun, enabling the center-left nationalist party to distance itself from Sarkisian’s government while retaining three of the four ministerial posts it has held for the past four years. The Armenian ministries of agriculture, education, and social affairs will thus continue to be run by Dashnaktsutiun members. The party, which is particularly influential in the worldwide Armenian Diaspora, also clinched the right to appoint one of the country’s ten provincial governors, a deputy speaker of the National Assembly, and the chairpersons of two parliament committees. One of its top leaders, Vahan Hovannisian, was elected as vice-speaker during the first session of the newly elected legislature on June 7.
Meanwhile, Prosperous Armenia, which is led by Kocharian-connected tycoon Gagik Tsarukian, got hold of the less significant ministries of health, urban development, and sport affairs, despite the fact that it won considerably more parliament seats than Dashnaktsutiun. The HHK will directly or indirectly control seven ministries, including those of finance and justice, as well as the newly created post of deputy prime minister. Kocharian, for his part, filled two other cabinet vacancies, reappointing his longtime Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and Defense Minister Mikael Harutiunian. Neither man is affiliated with any party. In addition, the Armenian president will continue to control the law-enforcement and tax-collection agencies that are not part of the government and are directly subordinated to the head of state.
The coalition talks took longer than expected because of disagreements revolving around the extent and form of Dashnaktsutiun’s continued presence in Armenia’s leadership. Dashnaktsutiun leaders made it clear in the run-up to the May 12 vote that they will quit the government unless their party is given control over the Ministry of Defense. But they dropped that demand after the HHK’s election triumph, mindful of the fact that Sarkisian and his loyalists can now push any decision through parliament practically at will. Nonetheless, Dashnaktsutiun set other conditions, including a greater say in the formulation of government policies and a right to disavow those policies with which it disagrees. Surprisingly, Sarkisian appears to have agreed to all of those conditions.
Speaking to journalists later on June 6, another party leader, Armen Rustamian, stressed that Dashnaktsutiun will have an “independent political tactic” and will bear no responsibility for the actions of the prime minister and cabinet members not affiliated with it. More importantly, he also confirmed that the nationalist party has not committed itself to endorsing Sarkisian’s presidential bid. The issue was the main stumbling block during the post-election negotiations, with Sarkisian reportedly insisting that the coalition partners pledge to nominate a single candidate for the presidential ballot. Dashnaktsutiun leaders, whose rapport with Kocharian’s most likely successor has always been quite frosty, have repeatedly stated that they plan to have their own presidential candidate. Rustamian effectively reaffirmed this at the news conference.
All of which raises the question why Sarkisian agreed to give ministerial portfolios to Dashnaktsutiun without getting anything significant in return. Some local commentators believe that he did so under pressure from Kocharian, who has enjoyed the party’s strong backing throughout his nine-year presidency. They speculate that Kocharian is keen to limit the HHK’s rising grip on power as part of his apparent plans to continue to pull the government strings in some capacity after completing his second and final term in office. Prosperous Armenia’s worse-than-expected election performance (it won only 24 of the 131 parliament seats) is thought to have already dealt a serious blow to the realization of those plans.
Analysts also suggest that Sarkisian still hopes to win over Dashnaktsutiun or at least keep it from challenging him in the 2008 election. Indeed, while Dashnaktsutiun does not seem to have potentially electable presidential hopefuls, its independent involvement in the presidential race would make life much harder for Sarkisian. In particular, the party’s government levers coupled with its well-organized grassroots network put it in a position to restrict and/or expose the increasingly sophisticated vote rigging that remains the HHK’s and Sarkisian’s principal election-winning technique. Whether Dashnaktsutiun is really ready to pick a fight with Armenia’s number one “party of power” remains to be seen. Cynics say the Dashnaktsutiun leadership has grown too accustomed to power and the resulting perks to become an opposition force. The next few months will show if they are right.
(168 Zham, June 7, 9; Haykakan Zhamanak, June 7-8; Aravot, June 7)