YEREVAN -- Lawmakers representing the Armenian opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party walked out of parliament after accusing President Serzh Sarkisian of seeking to illegally prolong his rule, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
In a speech preceding the walkout on February 28, Zharangutyun leader Raffi Hovannisian joined other prominent opposition figures in condemning Sarkisian's new power-sharing agreement with his junior coalition partners.
In a joint declaration signed on February 17, Sarkisian's Republican Party (HHK) and the Prosperous Armenia and Orinats Yerkir parties pledged to campaign for the incumbent president's reelection in 2013.
The governing parties also made clear that they will not seek to change "the correlation of forces within the coalition" in parliamentary elections due in May 2012. They expressed confidence that they will have even more seats in the next parliament.
The ruling coalition controls at least 100 seats in the current 131-member National Assembly. Critics say the coalition forces effectively committed themselves to predetermining the election outcome and further reducing the opposition presence in parliament.
Hovannisian echoed those claims, calling the coalition deal "unconstitutional" and saying that Sarkisian is keen to stay in power for seven more years. "The message to the Armenian society was that 'l'etat c'est moi' -- the state is me and nothing can be done against me," he told the National Assembly.
"Unfortunately, the existing correlation of forces between the majority and the opposition doesn't satisfy the [governing] party leaders, and they have set their sights on these few opposition seats. There is no need to rig another election," Hovannisian said.
The Zharangutyun leader finished his speech amid angry shouts from members of the parliament's pro-presidential majority. "Dear colleagues, I share your indignation," Samvel Nikoyan, a deputy speaker presiding over the session, told them.
In a statement issued later in the day, Zharangutyun said its governing body will meet this weekend to discuss the party's "further strategy and tactics" in the parliament.
According to Stepan Safarian, a senior Zharangutyun lawmaker, among the options under consideration will be a permanent boycott of parliament sessions and even a formal surrender of its six parliament mandates.
The Zharangutyun walkout was condemned by parliamentary majority leaders. "I can't understand why Mr. Hovannisian is troubled by the unity and joint responsibility of the coalition forces," the HHK's Eduard Sharmazanov told RFE/RL.
Naira Zohrabian, a Prosperous Armenia leader, dismissed the move as a publicity stunt. "What matters to them is their own public relations," she said.
But Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), the other opposition party represented in parliament, agreed with Zharangutyun's interpretation of the coalition deal.
Hrant Markarian, another Dashnaktsutyun leader, said earlier that the coalition accord will have "extremely negative" consequences for the country.