Armenian Public Council Chairman Vazgen Manukian, who narrowly missed unseating incumbent President Levon Ter-Petrossian in the September 1996 presidential ballot, has expressed regret
that there will be no real alternative to President Serzh Sarkisian in the presidential election scheduled for February 18. He said the authorities and the opposition share the blame for that situation.
Manukian predicted that Sarkisian will be reelected for a second term not as a result of the large-scale falsification of the vote that many oppositionists fear, but because there is no candidate whom voters see as a viable and acceptable alternative.
Over the past 2 1/2 weeks, the two men widely seen as standing the best chance of capturing the "protest" vote against the inexorable decline in living standards during Sarkisian's five-year term in office have both announced that they will not participate. Wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, chairman of the Bargavach Hayastan Party (Prosperous Armenia Party, BHK), which placed second in the May parliamentary ballot with 37 mandates, said on December 12 that he will not participate, without explaining why. The BHK then issued a statement
saying it will neither field another candidate nor back a candidate from another party.
Then on December 25, Ter-Petrossian declared in an interview
with the daily "Chorrord inknishkhanutiun" that he has decided not to run. He cited as the reasons for that decision his age -- he will turn 68 next week -- and an "insignificant and purely technical reason" that he declined to specify on the grounds that few people would believe it.
Several commentators have made the point
, however, that if age had been Ter-Petrossian's primary consideration, he would have not waited for months to make public a decision that has been repeatedly postponed. According to official returns, which he does not recognize as valid, Ter-Petrossian placed second to Sarkisian in the February 2008 presidential ballot.
Some Yerevan-based analysts had suggested that after months of inconclusive consultations between the BHK and Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress (HAK) about the possibility of fielding a single candidate, each man was waiting for the other to clarify his stance before deciding whether or not to run.
It is not yet clear whether the HAK will nominate another candidate. The Azatutiun (Liberty) party headed by Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian, who served under Ter-Petrossian as prime minister, quit the HAK to protest that organization's willingness to cooperate with Tsarukian, and will back Bagratian's candidacy. Bagratian has assessed his chances as "good"
while admitting he has little time to build up broad popular support.
Bagratian was one of two influential senior HAK members whom Ter-Petrossian's top aide, Levon Zurabian, admitted in early December
were considering breaking ranks and declaring their own presidential aspirations. The second was Nikol Pashinian, the charismatic editor of the opposition daily "Haykakan zhamanak," who spent two years in jail for his imputed role in the postelection clashes on March 1-2, 2008 between police and Ter-Petrossian's supporters in which 10 people died. Pashinian has not yet made any statement regarding his plans.
Aram Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh), chairman of the opposition Hanrapetutiun party that like Bagratian's Azatutiun was a member of Ter-Petrossian's HAK until recently, said last week
he will not nominate his candidacy due to what he termed popular apathy. Sarkisian lost the 2003 presidential runoff to incumbent Robert Kocharian and backed Ter-Petrossian in 2008.
Since registration began on December 25, three candidates have formally applied. They are veteran Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hairikian and two hitherto little-known, non-partisan candidates: Vardan Sedrakian and Mher Hairapetian.
Manukian expressed his respect for U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovanisian, chairman of the opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party, who has declared his candidacy. But he spoke scathingly of both Tsarukian and Ter-Petrossian. A mathematician by training, Manukian was one of the founding members with Ter-Petrossian of the Karabakh Committee formed in early 1988 to spearhead the demand for the transfer of the then Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast to Armenian jurisdiction. He served as prime minister then as defense minister under Ter-Petrossian in the early 1990s before splitting with him to found his own National Democratic Union (AZhM).
Manukian was the main challenger to Ter-Petrossian in the September 1996 presidential ballot, when several rival opposition candidates pulled out of the race to back him. One of Ter-Petrossian's closest associates subsequently admitted to RFE/RL's Armenian Service
that the outcome of the first round of voting was rigged to preclude a runoff between the two men.
Manukian, who is one year younger than Ter-Petrossian, has run in every single presidential ballot since then. He placed third in the first round of voting in 1998 with 12.2 percent of the vote, fifth in 2003 with 0.91 percent, and fifth again in 2008 with 1.29 percent. In September, he ruled out running
as a candidate in February 2013, adding that it was not clear which candidate his AZhM would back.