Armenia: Opposition Candidates Consider Joining Forces
Marianna Grigoryan: 02/05/08
Amid assurances from President Robert Kocharian that Armenia’s upcoming presidential poll will meet international standards, leading opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian, alleging unfair campaign conditions, has filed a complaint that could lead to a postponement of the February 19 election.
On February 7, Ter-Petrosian lodged the petition with the Constitutional Court, Armenia’s highest court. In it, he asks the high court to recognize that his election campaign faces "insurmountable obstacles." Under Article 90 of Armenia’s Election Code, such "obstacles," if recognized by the Court, can trigger a two-week postponement of the presidential election.
At the end of that period, if the hindrances have been addressed, the election would take place immediately. If it is decided that they have not been addressed, the election would be held 40 days after the end of the two-week postponement period.
The Constitutional Court will consider Ter-Petrosian’s application on February 11, a source within the Court told EurasiaNet.
"[P]residential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian’s pre-election headquarters undertook all measures possible under the laws of the Republic of Armenia to preclude violations of the law carried out against the presidential candidate or to remove their consequences. However, those initiatives did not yield any positive result," the application submitted to the Constitutional Court reads.
The campaign claims that alleged government propaganda against Ter-Petrosian, who resigned as president in 1998, has made it impossible for the ex-president to have a fair chance at running for national office. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Ter-Petrosian’s resignation a decade ago was sparked by a disagreement with senior officials over the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. Among the top leaders who opposed him back then were then-prime minister Robert Kocharian and then-interior minister Serzh Sarkisian, who is current prime minister and the government’s candidate for president.
"There is total anti-campaigning going on against Levon Ter-Petrosian on television channels, which impedes our activities," Arman Musinian, a spokesperson for Ter-Petrosian’s campaign, told EurasiaNet. The campaign singles out public television in particular for biased coverage, but indicates that attempts have also been made to derail the ex-president’s rallies. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Besides the anti-campaigning, the authorities are doing everything in this period to create obstacles for us, and for this very reason we have applied to the Constitutional Court," Musinian said.
The first interim report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights election observation mission cited overwhelmingly negative coverage of Ter-Petrosian, Armenia’s first post-Soviet president. Local monitoring groups have reached similar conclusions.
While government officials have issued repeated assurances that the election campaign is going relatively smoothly and comes close to meeting "international standards," opposition leaders have frequently complained about alleged cases of violence that they attribute to the government.
On February 3, Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) Party leader and presidential candidate Artur Baghdasarian declared at a rally in Yerevan that he had received a death threat. A police investigation is ongoing.
Pro-government media, however, have hinted that the claim is a publicity stunt. Although he reportedly received the threat on February 2, Baghdasarian did not visit the police until February 7, noted Hayots Ashkharh. "This means Baghdasarian has absolutely no problems connected with his personal security, as he announced at the rally," said commentary published by the newspaper. "Or, he is really determined to sacrifice his life for the sake of Armenia and does not want that the police interfere in this."
Baghdasarian has since accepted protection from the National Security Service.
Meanwhile, during a February 6 rally for Ter-Petrosian in the eastern town of Artashat, in Armenia’s Ararat region, several young men hurled stones and pieces of ice in the direction of the former president. A scuffle between rally participants and the young men – termed "hooligans" by Ter-Petrosian -- broke out, injuring the candidate’s deputy security chief. Campaign members have said that he was hospitalized.
Ter-Petrosian’s campaign blamed the government for the incident and, personally, on Deputy Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian and his brother, parliamentarian Jonik Abrahamian, who are both from nearby Artashat. The town is widely assumed to be an Abrahamian political stronghold.
In response, the police have claimed that Ter-Petrosian and his supporters "voiced personal insults and discrediting words against certain officials."
"Three citizens participating in the rally demanded that the obscene and offensive expressions be put to an end," an official statement claims. It goes on to allege that "four or five young people from among the supporters of the event organizers dragged, threw on the ground and hit those who made the remarks, inflicting bodily injuries on them."
A criminal case has been started in connection with the incident and a police investigation is reportedly ongoing. The OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission will be conducting its own inquiry as well, according to mission head, Amb. Geert Ahrens of Germany.
Not surprisingly, opposition and government supporters are diametrically opposed over who is responsible for the clash. "Those are shows that the authorities from time to time organize to discredit Levon Ter-Petrosian on public television," commented opposition journalist Nikol Pashinian, a senior Ter-Petrosian ally. "In reality, we are carrying out our campaign in an atmosphere of terror created by the authorities."
Pashinian also holds the government responsible for a reported assault on a Ter-Petrosian heckler in the town of Talin – an incident cited by Ter-Petrosian opponents to underline the former president’s supposed low tolerance for criticism.
Local government officials routinely intervene, Pashinian continued. At a rally in Charentsavan, a town near Lake Sevan in eastern Armenia, the town’s mayor stood near the demonstration and ordered people not to attend it, Pashinian alleged.
"We get very warm receptions everywhere, with special ceremonies, with horses, offerings, presents, and it is clear that [Prime Minister and rival presidential candidate] Serzh Sarkisian does not like all this," Pashinian said.
Orinats Yerkir Party spokeswoman Susanna Abrahamian – no relation to the deputy prime minister -- also claims that voters are afraid to act freely during the campaign.
"In several cases during our campaign meetings people do not manage to get to the place because of government intervention and intimidation," Abrahamian claimed. "Despite that, things fortunately have not gone as far as fistfights in our campaign." Orinats Yerkir and Ter-Petrosian have reportedly recently held talks about forming an alliance of some sort. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Pro-administration officials, however, claim that the opposition itself is staging the incidents. "One [player] is stirring up everything, and that instigator is the opposition, which has created a situation with such stories to make it appear that there is pressure on them," alleged ruling Republican Party of Armenia parliamentarian Rafik Petrosian. "We have stated many times that we have sufficient strength and resources to cruise to an easy victory in the election. And the opposition needs an excuse for their [coming] defeat."
At a February 7 rally in the city of Vanadzor, Prime Minister Sarkisian attributed the "mud slinging" to opposition candidates "losing their conscience."
Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan.