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Armenia: New Parliament To Be Elected Amid Lingering Political Tensions

Armenians will elect a new parliament on 25 May, less than three months after a dramatic presidential election that sparked a domestic political standoff and tarnished Armenia's image in the West. The unfolding parliamentary race is shaping up as another showdown between President Robert Kocharian and the Armenian opposition, which refuses to recognize the legitimacy of his re-election. Winning control of the country's legislature will be vital for both camps. The Council of Europe, meanwhile, warns that a repeat of the serious irregularities reported during the presidential ballot could endanger Armenia's hard-won membership in the influential human rights organization.

Yerevan, 29 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian, still reeling from allegations of vote rigging that marred his recent re-election, has hardly opted for a conventional way of retaining control of his country's parliament. Unlike many other post-Soviet leaders, he has no party of his own and has never tried to establish one throughout his five-year presidency.

Instead, Kocharian relies on a wide array of large and small political groups that stood by him during the presidential election. Those make up the majority of the 21 parties and blocs registered by Armenia's Central Election Commission. Kocharian has made it clear that he will try to make sure they command a comfortable majority in the next parliament.

Speaking to university students in Yerevan last week, he said a loyal legislature is essential for the success of his second five-year term in office.

"That means we have to have a parliament with which it will be possible to work, which will not oppose the president. That means it is very desirable for me, and I think for the country as well, to have a parliament where political forces supporting the president have a substantial majority," Kocharian said.

The political opposition in Armenia believes the only way that can be achieved is for Kocharian to manipulate the upcoming elections. Unlike the divided pro-presidential forces, most of the opposition is contesting the polls in a single alliance led by Stepan Demirchian, the main opposition presidential candidate. The alliance, called Artarutyun, or Justice, has set an equally ambitious goal, which was articulated by Demirchian during his first campaign trip to Aragatsotn Province in central Armenia.

"Our participation is not aimed at getting a few [parliamentary] mandates," Demirchian said. "We are seeking radical changes. To that end, Justice [Party] should have a majority in the National Assembly."

Demirchian and his opposition allies claim to have been robbed of victory in the presidential election held in two rounds on 19 February and 5 March. Their allegations of widespread electoral fraud were given weight by Western observers, who concluded that the vote fell short of democratic standards.

Even Armenia's Constitutional Court has urged the authorities to hold a "referendum of confidence" on Kocharian within a year -- a call angrily rejected by Kocharian. The 48-year-old Armenian leader has admitted there were "numerous" voting irregularities but insists they did not affect the outcome of the election.

The disputed election sparked a campaign of street protests by the Demirchian-led opposition, which further heightened political tensions in the country. Tempers have somewhat calmed in the last two weeks but may flare up again during and after the 25 May polls.

Armenia's 131-member Azgayin Zhoghov, or National Assembly, is far less powerful than the president, who can appoint and sack the government and dissolve the legislature practically at will. Nonetheless, the parliament has the authority to unseat ruling cabinets by a vote of no-confidence and initiate impeachment proceedings against the head of state -- hence, Kocharian's strong desire to prevent it from falling under opposition control.

Under Armenian law, 75 of the parliament seats are up for grabs on the party list basis. The 56 other seats will be distributed in single-mandate constituencies across the country.

Voters will also be asked to vote on 25 May on a package of amendments to Armenia's Constitution, which were drafted by Kocharian. He says the amendments would curtail his sweeping constitutional powers. The opposition claims the opposite.

The most influential pro-presidential group is the Republican Party of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian. Its list of candidates also comprises eight other cabinet members, including powerful Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian. The Republicans have the largest faction in the outgoing Armenian parliament and control many local governments.

Their dominant status is increasingly challenged by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, another major party represented in the government. Kocharian's chief of staff, Artashes Tumanian, is among its top candidates. Also in the running are a dozen other, smaller, pro-Kocharian parties, as well as ostensibly independent candidates linked to the government.

Local analysts agree that Kocharian's strategy is to have as many of them elected to parliament as possible. Some observers predict the abundance of pro-establishment contenders with often conflicting interests will plunge the presidential camp into turmoil and facilitate an opposition victory.

The key question for the opposition Justice bloc is whether the elections will be free and fair, something which has rarely been the case in Armenia. As Demirchian put it: "Nobody is naive enough to think that these authorities will not rig the elections. But that doesn't mean we are unable to fight. We will fight until we win."

The freedom and fairness of the elections is also a concern of the United States and Europe, which harshly criticized Yerevan's handling of the presidential vote. The parliamentary race, they say, is a chance for Armenia to reassert its democratic credentials in the West. The secretary-general of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer, warned recently that another fraudulent election would spell "disaster" for the Caucasus nation's European aspirations.

Not surprisingly, the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), will field a much larger election monitoring mission in Armenia next month. An advance team of PACE observers has already visited Yerevan, receiving government assurances that the vote will be democratic this time around.

But the head of the delegation, Russell Johnston, indicated that only time will reveal the sincerity of Armenian leaders. "I believe you can have a fair and free election," he said. "But as they used to say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating."