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Armenia: Authorities, Opposition Brace For Postelection Showdown

Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian speaking at a pre-election rally in Yerevan (AFP) May 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Many observers suspect that the outcome of  the May 12 parliamentary elections in Armenia may be tailored to ensure a victory for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).

Radical opposition parties have warned that they will convene mass public protests in the event that the vote, like previous ballots, is perceived as less than free and fair, while President Robert Kocharian has warned the opposition that any attempt to "undermine political stability" will elicit an "appropriate response" from the authorities.

Carbon-Copy Elections?

Of the 131 parliament mandates, 90 are to be distributed under the proportional system and the remaining 41 in single-mandate constituencies. Initially, 27 parties and one electoral bloc applied to participate under the proportional system, fielding a combined total of some 1,300 candidates.

Twenty-four parties and one bloc were formally registered, of which two -- the Armenian Pan-National Movement of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian and the pro-Kocharian Progressive Party of Armenia -- have since withdrawn, lowering to 1,245 the total number of candidates competing under the party-list system. Of the 173 candidates who applied for registration in the single-mandate constituencies, 119 remain on the ballot.

Candidates, voters and outside observers alike all fear that the May 12 ballot will prove a carbon copy of earlier elections that were marred by gross procedural violations, including multiple voting, ballot-box stuffing, and the falsification of election protocols.

In light of that flawed track record, repeated affirmations by senior officials, including Kocharian, Sarkisian, and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, that every effort will be made to ensure that the vote conforms to European standards for a free, fair, and democratic ballot have met with widespread skepticism.

Kocharian reacted with anger to the publication last month of what was billed as the transcript of a conversation between former Parliament Speaker Artur Baghdasarian, chairman of the opposition Orinats Yerkir party, and a British diplomat, in which Baghdasarian asked whether the EU could issue a statement protesting ongoing efforts to secure an election victory for parties that support Kocharian. Kocharian slammed that request as tantamount to "treason."

But widespread fears that the ballot will again be rigged have only been compounded by confident predictions from leading members of Sarkisian's HHK. For example, Galust Sahakian, who heads the HHK faction in the outgoing legislature, was quoted by Noyan Tapan on May 2 as saying that the party will receive an absolute majority.

Unlike the elections of 1999 and 2003, however, this time around the HHK faces serious competition in the form of the Prosperous Armenia (Bargavach Hayastan) party established in late 2005 by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, a close associate of Kocharian. Prosperous Armenia boasts several hundred thousand members, and its regional activists have reportedly been distributing humanitarian aid on a massive scale to impoverished villagers in a bid to win votes.

Neck And Neck

A recent opinion poll suggests the HHK and Prosperous Armenia are neck and neck, with the former set to garner some 34 percent of the vote, compared with 32 percent for the latter, according to Noyan Tapan on May 2. The same poll gives the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), the HHK's junior partner in government since 1999, 11.2 percent of the vote, compared with 12.8 percent for Baghdasarian's opposition Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party, and 7 percent for Artashes Geghamian's opposition National Accord Party.

Also expected to surmount the 5-percent minimum required to win parliamentary representation under the proportional system are the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party of U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian; the People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) headed by Stepan Demirchian; the United Labor Party (the third member of the present coalition government); and Dashink (Alliance), which is headed by Samvel Babayan, the former commander of the Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces. RFE/RL's Armenian Service noted on May 10, however, that attendance at rallies organized by Demirchian's HZhK has been far lower than during the 2003 election campaign.

Zharangutiun Chairman Hovannisian predicted on May 4 that if the vote is truly free and fair, his party will win a plurality of votes, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Hovannisian did not exclude the possibility of aligning with three radical groups that have vowed to mobilize voters to protest any attempt to rig the outcome of the vote in favor of the HHK.

Those three -- former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian's Hanrapetutiun (Republic) party, Aram Karapetian's Nor Zhamanakner (New Times), and the Impeachment bloc that includes former Ter-Petrossian allies -- told thousands of supporters at rallies in Yerevan on May 3 and 9 that they will convene mass protests in the event that the election falls short of democratic standards.

Sargsian assured supporters that "if they again ignore our will, if they trample on our rights, if they again look down on us..., we will rise up and gather in this square on May 13.... We will march ahead of you, we won't hesitate, we won't run away." Orinats Yerkirleader Baghdasarian has likewise pledged that "if the elections are bad, we will revolt and struggle for the people's rights," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on May 10.

Claims And Counterclaims

Opposition leaders claimed that police used truncheons and tear gas against some participants in the May 9 rally, but senior police official Major General Ararat Mahtesian denied that on May 10, saying that it was opposition supporters who used tear gas against police. Mahtesian also accused the leaders of the three groups of deliberately provoking a violent response, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

Also on May 10, leading HHK member Eduard Sharmazanov warned that "freedom ends where the law begins" and that the authorities have the right to "maintain order," Noyan Tapan reported. Artur Rustamian of the HHD for his part commented on May 10 that some political forces appear to be less interested in winning seats in parliament than in "inflaming the postelection atmosphere."

Summing up the election campaign on May 10, President Kocharian stressed that it is "extremely important that the new parliament and president be able to cooperate. If there is a confrontation between these two institutions, it is the people who will suffer." Kocharian expressed the hope that the HHK will win "a weighty presence" in the new legislature that would enable the party to "continue reforms with renewed vigor," and that BH and the HHD would have "a serious presence."

He made it clear that he would prefer to see only what he described as "the constructive opposition" winning parliamentary representation. Whether or not opposition parties take to the streets of Yerevan in protest on May 13 will depend to a large extent on the degree to which local election commission interpret Kocharian's comment as an order, rather than as a hypothetical preference.

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