Wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, who was widely perceived as Sarkisian’s strongest potential challenger, unexpectedly announced on December 12 that he will not participate in the election. Whether that decision was taken as a direct result of a meeting on December 8 between Tsarukian and the president is not clear.
In a move one analyst has termed “suicidal,” Tsarukian’s Bargavach Hayastan Party (Prosperous Armenia, BHK) issued a written statement on December 11 saying it will not nominate or endorse any other candidate.
A former arm-wrestling champion who has acquired near cult status thanks to his charitable activities, Tsarukian founded the BHK in 2006. The party polled second in the 2007 parliamentary election, gaining 25 of the 131 parliament seats, and joined a coalition government together with Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD). The Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) Party headed by National Security Council Secretary Artur Baghdasarian joined the coalition after the 2008 presidential ballot. The HHD quit it in the spring of 2009 to protest Sarkisian’s policy of rapprochement with Turkey.
In February 2011, Sarkisian’s HHK, Orinats Yerkir, and the BHK signed a joint memorandum pledging not to compete against each other in the May 2012 parliamentary elections. They also affirmed their support for Sarkisian’s bid for a second term in February 2013. But the BHK subsequently distanced itself from that commitment and in the run-up to the parliamentary election campaign, Tsarukian repeatedly ruled out forming an election bloc with the HHK. BHK placed second in the May ballot, garnering 37* mandates, and after weeks of inner-party deliberations declined to enter a new coalition government with the HHK.
Tsarukian vowed on that occasion that the BHK would function as “a constructive alternative” to the HHK.
“We will have a highly constructive, balancing role and participation in the country’s political-public life,” he was quoted as saying.
In the event, the BHK has been less than consistent. Its parliament faction voted against the new government’s program in June. But most faction members then declined to support an initiative by the three other parliament minority factions to convene an emergency parliament session to debate the death of an army doctor beaten up by security personnel at a Yerevan restaurant owned by wealthy businessman and HHK parliament deputy Ruben Hayrapetian.
A similar lack of clarity has surrounded the BHK’s plans for the presidential election. On November 14, Tsarukian said his party had not yet decided whether and whom to nominate as its presidential candidate. But a week later, on November 21, Tsarukian said he had taken the decision whether or not to participate in the election. His aide Naira Zohrabian said that decision would be made public “within days,” but no announcement was forthcoming.
On December 11, one day before Tsarukian announced he would not run, his spokeswoman Ivetta Tonoyan dismissed as unfounded media speculation that Tsarukian was having second thoughts about participating in the election following his talks on December 8 with the president. Contradicting Tsarukian’s statement of three weeks earlier, she said Tsarukian had not yet decided whether or not to nominate his candidacy.
There are at least three possible explanations for Tsarukian’s decision not to run for president.
The first is that for the past 12 to 18 months Tsarukian and his party were playing the role of spoiler allocated to them by the HHK with the aim of taking votes from the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), an umbrella organization of some dozen parties headed by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian. According to the official results, which he continues to reject as falsified, Ter-Petrossian placed second to Sarkisian in the February 2008 presidential election. The HAK polled third in the May 2013 parliamentary election, winning seven mandates.
The HAK and BHK held inconclusive consultations last month over whether the former would back the latter’s presidential candidate or participate separately in the February ballot. At the same time, some observers suggested that Ter-Petrossian was waiting to see whether or not Tsarukian would run for president before announcing his own plans.
Senior HAK member and former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian said on November 15 that the party will announce its candidate “within a week or two.”
The daily “Haykakan zhamanak,” whose editor Nikol Pashinian is a prominent HAK member, commented apropos the BHK’s decision not to field a presidential candidate, “Tsarukian has been playing the role he is supposed to play: to ensure Serzh Sarkisian’s victory in the forthcoming presidential election.”
The HAK is now expected to announce its presidential candidate at a special congress on December 22, three days before the official process of registering nominations with the Central Election Commission begins.
The protracted delay by the CEC in announcing the date of the election, which enabled Tsarukian to wait so long before announcing his decision, could be construed as substantiating that hypothesis. On the other hand, it is difficult to reconcile the idea of Tsarukian and the BHK as a Trojan horse within the opposition camp with critical comments Tsarukian made to a visiting European Parliament official earlier this month about corruption within the upper echelons of the Armenian leadership – unless those comments were part of a carefully crafted scenario and intended to provide the rationale for Tsarukian to announce without losing face that he would not participate in the election.
The second possible explanation is that Sarkisian and the HHK tolerated Tsarukian’s inconsistent quasi-opposition activities as long as they were not perceived to pose a threat to Sarkisian’s chances of reelection, but then resorted to pressure or inducements to persuade him not to participate in the election. If so, Tsarukian’s corruption allegations may have served as the catalyst for that pressure.
The timing of Tsarukian’s bombshell, one week after his incriminating statement about corruption and four days after the meeting with Sarkisian (of which no details were disclosed), lend credence to that hypothesis. And/or the HHK may have decided to preclude the possibility that Ter-Petrossian’s HAK would throw its weight behind Tsarukian as the candidate with the best chances of unseating Sarkisian.
BHK spokesman Tigran Urikhanian has, however, denied that the authorities exerted any pressure on Tsarukian. “Pressuring the BHK would mean trying to suppress people’s hope to see a prosperous Armenia,” he said.
The HHK has issued a similar denial. “I am sure that President Sarkisian never resorted to pressure,” HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “Serzh Sarkisian is a prudent and broad-minded politician who espouses democratic values. Serzh Sarkisian has never issued ultimatums.”
The third possible explanation is that Tsarukian and his advisers dispassionately assessed his chances, concluded that he has no chance of defeating Sarkisian, and decided to focus on the party’s engagement within parliament and preparing for the next election cycle (parliamentary in 2016, presidential in 2018). That is in line with Urikhanian’s statement that the BHK does not consider any political post as an end in itself, and with the emphasis Tsarukian places on seeking to improve the socioeconomic situation in Armenia. But Tsarukian’s decision not to run for president may have disappointed and alienated his many supporters to the point that it has inflicted irreparable damage on his political credibility and that of the BHK as a whole.
As for the BHK’s decision not to nominate or endorse another candidate to challenge Sarkisian, it may be the logical corollary to any one of the three scenarios outlined above. And/or it may signify a victory by the “conservative” faction within the BHK over a more liberal faction. The “conservatives” in this context are wealthy businessmen vulnerable to government threats to divest them of their assets and/or probe how those assets were acquired; the liberals, including former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, are more ideologically motivated.
Oskanian himself hinted at that explanation in a December 13 post on Facebook. Oskanian said the decision not to field a presidential candidate “was not made easily” as there were “different opinions” within the BHK leadership. He said the BHK took into account the existing political situation in the country and Tsarukian’s refusal to run for president.
“Although I imagined our further steps and struggle in a different way, I respect the adopted decision,” Oskanian added.
That latter statement precludes possible speculation that Oskanian, who represents the BHK in parliament and had been regarded as a potential BHK presidential candidate in the event that Tsarukian decided not to run, might break ranks or run as an independent candidate.
With the HAK decision on its presidential candidate still outstanding, the only major opposition party to have affirmed its participation in the ballot is the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party headed by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian. Sarkisian’s predecessor as president, Robert Kocharian, announced in the wake of Tsarukian’s bombshell that he has never contemplated a new presidential bid.
The HHD, which recently launched a campaign to transform Armenia from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, has not yet said whether it will field its own candidate or back a candidate from another opposition party. The only other candidates to date are veteran Soviet-era dissident and Union for National Self-Determination chairman Paruyr Hairikian and Hovik Agazarian, an unemployed former member of the HHD.
CORRECTED: This story has been amended to correctly reflect the number of BHK mandates won in the May 2012 parliamentary elections.