YEREVAN -- The leader of the Armenian opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party has begun a hunger strike to demand that the country's leadership hold fresh presidential and parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
Raffi Hovannisian announced his "freedom fast" in a speech at a Zharangutyun conference, and said he would refuse food and stage an around-the-clock sit-in at Yerevan's Liberty Square, the scene of massive antigovernment demonstrations by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian following the disputed February 2008 presidential election.
Hovannisian was later seated on a bench in the square beside an Armenian flag. He told RFE/RL that he is urging President Serzh Sarkisian to hold Armenia's "first free and fair elections since 1995."
"I'm not begging, asking, or demanding," he said. "But I expect that in this emergency situation the current authorities will come down and give back the Armenian people their votes and their voice. And I expect the authorities to themselves expedite an emergency solution."
Hovannisian added: "At the same time, I hope that Armenian society will become the master of its own country and will not wait for anyone to deliver its rights and freedoms on a plate. They have to be won."
The hunger strike comes two weeks after Hovannisian and four other parliament deputies representing Zharangutyun walked out of the National Assembly, accusing Sarkisian of seeking to illegally prolong his tenure. The opposition party said after the walkout that it will not permanently boycott parliament or relinquish its seats.
The holding of early elections is also the key demand of Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress (HAK), a larger and more active opposition force. The HAK began a new campaign of antigovernment rallies last month, threatening to topple Sarkisian if he continues to oppose fresh elections.
Hovannisian, who served as Armenia's first foreign minister in 1992, made a surprise appearance at HAK's most recent rally in Yerevan on March 1. But he did not try to speak at the protest or join HAK leaders on the podium.
Hovannisian and his party supported Ter-Petrossian during the 2008 presidential race and the ensuing crackdown on the ex-president's opposition movement. But relations between Zharangutyun and the HAK have become strained since 2009.