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Is The Armenian Postelection Standoff Over?

Armenian President-elect Serzh Sarkisian (left) with his political rival Raffi Hovannisian
Armenian President-elect Serzh Sarkisian (left) with his political rival Raffi Hovannisian
The six-week standoff between Armenian President-elect Serzh Sarkisian and his closest challenger, Raffi Hovannisian, may have run its course -- or simply entered a new phase.

On March 31, Easter Sunday according to the Armenian Apostolic Church, Hovannisian ended the hunger strike he embarked on three weeks earlier to demand that the authorities recognize him as the legitimate winner of the February 18 ballot in which according to official returns he polled 37 percent compared with 58 percent for incumbent Sarkisian.

A leading member of Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) hailed Hovannisian’s decision as “prudent” and indicated that it could pave the way for talks between the two men.

Having vowed that Sarkisian’s inauguration on April 9 would take place over his dead body, and after rejecting on March 26 an appeal by Sarkisian to end his hunger strike, Hovannisian told supporters during a rally on Yerevan’s Liberty Square on March 29 that he had decided “to go on living for the sake of the future of my Motherland.”

Hovannisian also said on March 29 that he plans to continue his campaign of protest. The following day, he set out on a tour of the provinces (where his support based is greater than in the capital) prior to convening a further rally in Yerevan on April, at which he will unveil his future plans.

Yet for all Hovannisian’s efforts to put a brave face on his decision not to put his life at risk, it is Sarkisian who has emerged the stronger from the protracted stand-off -- at least in the short term.

Reason And Restraint

First, he has reacted consistently, with reason and restraint, and without recourse to violence, to Hovannisian’s shifting and sometimes populist demands, offering counterproposals that would have guaranteed Hovannisian’s Zharangutiun (Heritage) party greater input into shaping the political agenda, and possibly also a handful of portfolios in the new government.

Sarkisian rejected the initial demands put forward by Hovannisian just days after the election, including holding a pre-term parliamentary ballot in which all 131 seats would be allocated under the party-list system.

The following week, parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian (who had managed Sarkisian’s election campaign) invited Hovannisian to present “prudent proposals on behalf of voters and call for serious reforms and changes in staffing policies.”

“I think that’s the way to go, if we care about our country’s progress,” Abrahamian added.

Abrahamian further implied that the government could offer ministerial posts to Hovannisian or other Zharangutiun members. “I am convinced that Serzh Sarkisian would be ready to discuss such issues with Mr. Hovannisian,” Abrahamian said. “I would consider that a reasonable proposal.”

Some Yerevan papers subsequently reported that Sarkisian was prepared to offer Zharangutiun ministerial posts in sports, culture, youth affairs, and social welfare in the new government.

Hovannisian rejected Abrahamian’s overture, however. Then, on March 13, he retracted his post-election proposals, only to present one week later what he termed a “final offer” in the form of five conditions that Sarkisian should meet if he wanted “to carry on as de facto president after the stolen, rigged, and unconstitutional election, without a popular mandate."

Basis For Dialogue

Those conditions included Hovannisian’s postelection demand for a pre-term parliamentary election by the end of 2013, plus amendments to the election law to preclude falsification and the right to nominate the justice and foreign ministers, the head of the tax service and the National Security Service, and the prosecutor-general.

Sarkisian responded in a letter to Hovannisian saying that while some of those demands were unconstitutional, they could nonetheless serve as the basis for dialogue, provided that Hovannisian ended his hunger strike.

“I am sure that if we start working purposefully, relying on our shared ideas, then we will certainly be able to achieve the result,” the presidential press service quoted Sarkisian as saying.

Hovannisian, for his part, implicitly rejected that offer of dialogue by refusing to end his hunger strike and insisting -- in defiance of official protocol -- that he would talk to the president-elect only if the latter came to the square in central Yerevan where Hovannisian was based during his protest.

Hovannisian’s tactic of formulating his successive proposals and challenges to Sarkisian in terms, and with pre-conditions, that virtually guarantee their rejection has increasingly led pundits to question precisely what he hoped to achieve.

For example, Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party chairman Aram Karapetian argued that Hovanisian’s actions are “devoid of all logic. If he was certain he won the ballot, he should have acted more decisively, and if he wasn’t, he should have tried from the very start to reach an agreement with the president."

Second, Sarkisian managed to expose, if not to exploit, differences in opinion and tactics between Hovannisian and other senior Zharangutiun members.

On February 28, the latter entered into talks with the HHK, which has a 70-seat majority in the 131-member parliament, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), which did not field a presidential candidate.

Those three parties tried but failed to reach consensus on convening an emergency parliament session to discuss ways to resolve the post-presidential standoff, including holding parliamentary elections within the next 12 months; and appointing Hovannisian to chair a multiparty commission, which would draft constitutional reforms over the next two years that would, among other things, curtail the president’s powers.

Hovannisian distanced himself from those talks even before they collapsed due to the HHK’s rejection of the other two parties’ proposals.

Yerevan Municipal Elections

Sarkisian has not commented publicly on Hovannisian’s decision to end his hunger strike. But senior HHK member Hovhannes Sahakian has hailed it as “a prudent step” and predicted it will open the door to a face-to-face meeting between the two men.

Meanwhile, with just one week to go before Sarkisian’s inauguration, the political focus is already shifting to the May 5 elections for the Yerevan municipal council.

Former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian recently underscored the political significance of that ballot, given that between one third and one half of Armenia’s population lives in the capital.

Oskanian reasoned that, insofar as Yerevan constitutes “a state within a state,” its mayoral and municipal council elections can be regarded as national, rather than local in scale.

Oskanian, who was elected to parliament in May 2012 on the ticket of the Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia) Party (BHK), will head the BHK’s list of candidates for the Yerevan ballot. He had expressed support last month for Hovannisian’s hunger strike, telling RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that what the opposition leader was doing “is totally justified and legitimate."

Nonetheless, according to HHD member Armen Rustamian, that party’s proposal that either Hovannisian or Oskanian head a broad-based opposition bloc to contest the Yerevan ballot proved a nonstarter because the two men could not reach agreement on which of them should head the joint list of candidates.

Zharangutiun will participate in the Yerevan election in a bloc named Barev (Hello) Yerevan with five smaller parties, two of which were previously aligned in former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress. The bloc's list of candidates is headed by senior Zharangutiun member Armen Martirosian.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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