As the authorities have consistently rejected successive demands by the HAK for early elections, that unexpected ultimatum risks derailing the long-awaited dialogue between the two camps that got under way just a fortnight ago.
The holding of early elections was one of a dozen demands put forward by HAK head and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian in early March, at the height of the euphoria triggered by the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
The authorities have met several of those demands, including the release of Ter-Petrossian supporters jailed in 2008 for their imputed participation in the violent clashes in Yerevan in the wake of the disputed presidential ballot that Ter-Petrossian claimed was rigged; reopening the probe into the deaths of 10 people during those clashes; and allowing the HAK to convene public rallies on Yerevan's Freedom Square.
Initially, the Armenian leadership argued that formal talks on the various problems facing the country, and on holding early elections in order to bridge the huge gulf between the leadership and the HAK, were unnecessary. But at the urging of the European Union and the United States, President Sarkisian agreed in June to launch a dialogue with the HAK. In early July, the coalition formally selected its representatives to participate in that dialogue.
The HAK construed Sarkisian's acceptance of its demand as a major victory and tactical concession. But that argument ignores Sarkisian's seminal speech last December to his Republican Party of Armenia, in which he stressed the need for a "deepening of democracy" and "the consistent introduction of European standards into all spheres of our state, public and economic life." Successfully implementing that agenda would contribute greatly to overcoming the stigma of only partial legitimacy resulting from the disputed 2008 presidential ballot and the brutal crackdown that followed.
Representatives of the two camps have since met twice, on July 18 and 26. A third meeting is scheduled for August 4. At the July 26 meeting, they agreed that the agenda for future talks would consist of just two points: the HAK demand for early elections, and the ruling coalition's proposal to draw up binding rules to ensure that the next national elections are free and fair.
Speaking in Yerevan on August 2, Ter-Petrossian again warned that "if the authorities don't finally make a choice on the conduct of preterm elections in the next one or two months, then the reasonable time frame will be deemed to have expired in September, and only one demand will remain on our agenda: namely the unconditional resignation of Serzh Sarkisian and the ruling coalition." Ter-Petrossian did not, however, specify whether he had in mind parliamentary or presidential elections, or both.
Despite repeated statements from the authorities that any preterm ballot is out of the question, some observers believe President Sarkisian might eventually agree to early parliamentary elections. Indeed, it could be argued that it would be his advantage to do so, for two, interrelated reasons. First, it would curtail the influence of the Prosperous Armenia party (BH), currently the second-largest parliament faction with 26 mandates. BH is widely seen as a stalking horse for Sarkisian's archrival and predecessor as president, Robert Kocharian.
Second, early parliamentary elections would serve as an opportunity to preclude the reelection on the slate of Sarkisian's ruling Republican Party of a number of oligarchs widely believed to have acquired their wealth and concomitant political influence by dubious means, and whom Sarkisian may belatedly have identified as a political liability.
Who Will Run, And When?
But the HAK on July 26 called the parliamentary election hypothesis into question by toughening its negotiating position and setting a deadline of early September for scheduling a new presidential ballot. That ultimatum in turn raises three crucial questions.
First, is the demand for an early presidential ballot serious, or is it simply a negotiating ploy intended to pressure Sarkisian to agree to early parliamentary elections as the lesser of two evils, and a compromise acceptable to both sides?
Second, assuming that the HAK demand is serious, who will be the HAK presidential candidate? Several commentators have told this writer they think Ter-Petrossian, 66, is "tired," and will cede leadership of the HAK to someone younger, rather than himself run for president in 2013.
Third, if an early presidential election does take place with Ter-Petrossian as the HAK candidate, will he again publicly affirm, as he did during an election campaign rally on November 16, 2007, that he will step down after serving as president for three years? He would, he said on that occasion, need that long to "clean out these Augean stables and put the state back on track."
Early elections now look unlikely, however, in light of Central Election Commission Chairman Garegin Azarian's statement on July 29 that they are currently logistically impossible. He explained that the commission is still in the process of forming district election commissions and has yet to train thousands of lower-level officials to man individual polling stations.