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Will Disputes Within Two Strongest Parties Nix New Armenian Coalition?

A man holds his ballot at a polling station in Yerevan during parliamentary elections on May 6.
A man holds his ballot at a polling station in Yerevan during parliamentary elections on May 6.
Two weeks after the May 6 parliamentary elections, it remains unclear whether President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) will again seek to form a coalition government as it did in 1999, 2004, and 2007. The HHK garnered 69 of the 131 parliament mandates. Its two partners in the outgoing government, Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia, BHK) and Orinats Yerkir (Rule of Law, OY), received 37 and six mandates, respectively.

President Sarkisian met on May 16 with BHK Chairman Gagik Tsarukian to discuss a new power-sharing agreement, but the outcome of those talks remains unclear. The pro-opposition daily "Haykakan zhamanak" predicted on May 17 that the new prime minister and parliament speaker would be named at a meeting later that day of the HHK executive committee, but no such announcements were forthcoming. HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov told reporters after that meeting that neither the possibility of a new coalition nor personnel appointments were discussed.

Sharmazanov did disclose, however, that the HHK has approached other parties too to discuss forming a coalition. The daily "Zhoghovurd" quoted OY leader Artur Baghdasarian as saying his party will have two portfolios (agriculture and emergency situations) in the new cabinet.

There are several possible reasons for the ongoing stalemate. The first is the increasingly strained relations over the past year between the HHK and the BHK resulting from Tsarukian's clear reluctance either to back Sarkisian's candidacy in the presidential ballot due in February 2013 or to form an electoral alliance with the HHK for the parliamentary elections. In early April, the BHK aligned with the opposition Armenian National Congress and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) to form an Inter-Party Center for Public Oversight of the Elections with the aim of preventing fraud and vote-rigging where possible and publicizing those procedural violations it was unable to prevent. It was largely because Tsarukian demonstratively distanced himself from the coalition that his party came to be seen as a viable alternative to the HHK, garnering almost twice as many votes as in the 2007 election.

The second is the lack of cohesion within the HHK, which one Armenian commentator recently characterized as "a cartel political structure comprising various factions ranging from conservatives to neo-liberals." For that reason, it is conceivable that its leadership is split over whether it is expedient to form a coalition with the BHK. True, the HHK's 69 mandates give it an overall majority in parliament. But OY's additional six mandates add up to a total of only 75, less than the 2/3 majority (88 mandates) needed to push through changes to the legislative code.

There is also reportedly intense jockeying under way within the HHK for the posts of prime minister, deputy prime minister, and parliament speaker. Former parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian, who stepped down from that post late last year to manage the HHK election campaign, is reportedly angling for the post of prime minister, while President Sarkisian wants current Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian (to whom he is not related) to remain in that post until the presidential elections due in February 2013.

Third, there is a similar lack of unanimity within the BHK ranks over whether to form a coalition with the HHK. Some core members are reportedly reluctant to risk the loss of influence and privileges that discontinuing cooperation with the ruling party would entail. Others argue that continuing that cooperation would be a betrayal of those voters who sought a viable political alternative, especially in light of the HHK's perceived responsibility for the numerous procedural violations that cast doubt over the fairness of the ballot and the accuracy of the officially promulgated results.

The BHK and its partners in the Inter-Party Center for Public Oversight of the Elections issued a statement on May 11 alleging widespread voter list manipulation and multiple fraudulent voting. "Violating legal provisions, the Central Election Commission (CEC) failed to ensure the proper application of passport stamps, the most important tool for preventing multiple voting," the statement read. "The voter lists used in the elections and the officially announced number of voters who took part in the elections are also extremely dubious," it continued, adding that the newly elected National Assembly "does not therefore reflect the real picture of popular support for political forces."

In a May 8 statement, BHK Chairman Tsarukian thanked all those who cast their ballots for his party and assured them that "my further political decisions will be made after discussions with my team." Tsarukian did not specify whether he considers the CEC results, which put his party in second place, to be credible. Nor did he say if he will leave the governing coalition or strike a new power-sharing deal with Sarkisian.

Senior BHK parliamentarian Naira Zohrabian, for her part, issued a statement on May 16 that did little to clarify the situation. "I want to emphasize once again that no coalition can be an end in itself for us," she said. "Having or not having several more or fewer ministers does not matter to the BHK. Our objective is more global: the formation of a government, whether a coalition one or not, that would swiftly address the serious challenges facing the country, improve the socioeconomic plight of the people, and change the business environment and economic atmosphere in the country," read the statement. Zohrabian added vaguely that the BHK will take no steps that would "undermine the people's faith and trust in us."

Zohrabian has separately declined to comment on a report in the daily "Yerkir" that she is in line for the post of deputy parliament speaker.

Former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who was second on the list of BH candidates elected under the proportional system, said on May 11 that Tsarukian was "simply listening to various opinions." Oskanian himself has consistently argued forcefully that BH should not enter a coalition that is not a genuine one.

Two other prominent political figures elected on the BH party list, Association of Politologists head Hmayak Hovannisian and United Labor Party Chairman and businessman Gurgen Arsenian, reportedly also oppose BH's participation in the new government. Some observers have speculated that they might voluntarily surrender their mandates in the event that BH does agree to enter a coalition. It has also been suggested that Tsarukian might order them to do so. Hovannisian has implicitly confirmed that possibility, saying the final decision on whether or not he enters parliament lies with Tsarukian.

A further factor Tsarukian must take into consideration is that the HHK is likely to make any invitation to join the new government contingent on the BHK backing incumbent President Sarkisian in next year's presidential election. Whether Tsarukian might counter by setting conditions of his own is unclear. The president is reputedly an experienced and successful gambler, but Tsarukian may have an ace up his sleeve: according to the Russian news agency Regnum, if the BHK were to renounce all its parliament mandates, a new election would have to be held.

The first session of the newly elected parliament is scheduled for May 31, after which the HHK has 50 days to form a government.

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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