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Armenian Presidential Election Slate Still Unclear

“I will be a presidential candidate only once and never again,” said Raffi Hovannisian.
“I will be a presidential candidate only once and never again,” said Raffi Hovannisian.
Armenia is due to hold a presidential election in just three months, but the Central Election Commission has still not yet set the exact date. Last time around, it announced on November 9, 2007, that the ballot would take place on February 19, 2008.

It is likewise not yet clear whom Armenia’s two main opposition groupings will choose as their respective candidates. Discussions between them on the possibility of fielding a single opposition candidate to challenge incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian have not yet yielded an agreement.

Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) formally named him as its candidate on November 9. The only other declared candidate to date is Raffi Hovannisian, the U.S.-born chairman of the opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party, who announced his candidacy a week earlier.

“I am doing this as a citizen of the Republic of Armenia who has responsibility and the will, shares the blame for the existing situation, and wants to help overcome and sort it out,” Hovannisian told journalists, adding that, “I will be a presidential candidate only once and never again.”

Hovannisian said he hopes that other opposition parties will support his candidacy. But the opposition Free Democrats, with whom Zharangutiun forged a short-lived alliance to participate in the May 2012 parliamentary ballot, have said they “are not even considering” doing so. Instead, the Free Democrats may become the first Armenian political party ever to field a woman presidential candidate, nominating the party’s deputy chairperson, Anush Sedrakian.

The Armenian National Congress (HAK) has not yet decided whether to propose as its candidate its chairman, former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who polled second to Sarkisian in the 2008 ballot. A senior HAK member, former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian, said on November 15 the party will announce its candidate “within a week or two.”

The HAK announced on November 12 that it had embarked on discussions with the Bargavach Hayastan Party (BHK, Prosperous Armenia) on fielding a single presidential candidate but did not name names. BHK is headed by wealthy oligarch Gagik Tsarukian, a former arm wrestler renowned for his charitable activities.

BHK was a junior partner in successive coalition governments from 2007-12. But it decided to participate independently in the May 2012 parliamentary election in violation of a memorandum Tsarukian signed in February 2011 and placed second, with 37 of the 131 mandates. Tsarukian subsequently declined to join the new coalition government formed by the HHK and its longtime ally, Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State). But the BHK nonetheless consistently positions itself not as an opposition party but as a “constructive alternative” to Sarkisian’s HHK.

Three men have been named as a possible joint HAK/BHK presidential candidate. The first is Ter-Petrossian, but backing him would be tantamount to the BHK unequivocally signaling that it is in opposition to Sarkisian and the HHK.

Several observers quoted by the Russian website Regnum believe the BHK is engaged in covert talks with the HHK and might back Sarkisian’s presidential candidacy in return for a promise of greater representation in government than they enjoyed in the past. (The post of prime minister or deputy prime minister figures in such speculation.)

Some other analysts rule out BHK support for Ter-Petrossian on the grounds of the bad blood between Ter-Petrossian and Robert Kocharian, who was instrumental in forcing Ter-Petrossian’s untimely resignation in February 1998.

Kocharian, who was elected president in March 1998, has long been regarded as close to, and exerting an influence on, the BHK. But Kocharian has distanced himself from a recent BHK initiative to effect a sweeping constitutional reform that would truncate the powers of the president and transform Armenia into a parliamentary republic.

The second potential joint candidate is Tsarukian, who has repeatedly refused to commit himself when asked by journalists about his presidential intentions, most recently last week.

The third is Vartan Oskanian, who served from 1998-2008 as foreign minister under Kocharian. Urbane, formidably articulate, and one of comparatively few former senior politicians not to have amassed a private fortune by questionable means, Oskanian joined the BHK earlier this year and was elected to parliament in May 2012. He currently faces criminal charges of money-laundering in connection with donations by a U.S. businessman to the Civilitas Foundation he established in 2008. Those charges are widely perceived as politically motivated retaliation for the BHK’s refusal to join a new coalition government. U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern has described the case against Oskanian as “troubling.”

Among the skeptics who doubt that the HAK and BHK will agree on a joint candidate, the daily “Aravot” suggests that Ter-Petrossian is waiting for Tsarukian to clarify his intentions before deciding whether or not to declare his candidacy.

Meanwhile, both the HAK and the BHK are holding talks with other opposition parties: the HAK with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), and the BHK with the Free Democrats. Commenting on the latter meeting, BHK parliament faction secretary Naira Zohrabian said the various opposition parties may agree on “quite a serious political agenda” prior to the February ballot.

Artur Rustamian of the HHD for his part said his party’s support for an opposition candidate is contingent on acceptance of its pre-election political agenda unveiled earlier this month. The seven-point document calls for Armenia’s transformation into a parliamentary republic; the holding of parliamentary elections only under the proportional representation system; the independence of the national judicial system; and the separation of big business from government.

The HHK, meanwhile, remains seemingly convinced that Sarkisian’s reelection is a foregone conclusion. In a rebuttal of Zohrabian’s assertion that the HHK “is waiting with bated breath for us to choose” which candidate to support, HHK parliamentarian Hamlet Harutiunian told the daily “Aravot” this week that the party “continues to breathe easily.” Harutiunian describes the two parties as “rivals,” not “enemies.”

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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