Monday, February 11, 2008
Armenia: Opposition Coalition Fails to Materialize
Marianna Grigoryan: 02/11/08

Former president Levon Ter-Petrosian and rival candidate Artur Baghdasarian have missed a deadline to combine campaigns, apparently denying the opposition any realistic hope of mounting a serious challenge for power in Armenia’s February 19 presidential election.

Ter-Petrosian, often presented as the opposition frontrunner, had earlier announced that he had "serious grounds" to believe that other opposition forces would join him, an assertion thought to refer mainly to Baghdasarian, who heads the opposition Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) Party. Heritage Party leader Raffi Hovannisian, who has a sizeable popular following, was also thought to be on the verge of offering an endorsement. Party representatives now indicate that they will make a decision by February 12 on which candidate to support. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

A merger announcement had been expected by February 9, the last day for candidates to withdraw from Armenia’s presidential race. But the day came and went without an announcement by either Ter-Petrosian or Baghdasarian. At a Yerevan rally on February 9, arguably one of the largest in recent years, thousands of supporters gathered to hear the former president speak. Police put the turnout at 15,000 people; organizers at a gargantuan 150,000. "This public rally and magnificent march have shown that there are indeed no insurmountable obstacles in front of us," Ter-Petrosian declared at the rally.

The campaign was joined by several organizations tied to the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the topic of a possible alliance with Baghdasarian and/or Hovannisian was not broached.

The Central Election Commission has finalized the registration for all previous nine candidates and a sample ballot has already been sent to the printing house. The Constitutional Court has rejected a request filed by Ter-Petrosian on February 8 that could have delayed the elections by two weeks to 40 days. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Heritage Party spokesperson Hovsep Khurshudian told EurasiaNet that negotiations with Ter-Petrosian and Baghdasarian are still ongoing. Hopes for some form of cooperation still exist, he said.

Senior Heritage Party member Stepan Safarian echoed that view, asserting that "everything" will be clear by February 12. "We will have a big discussion inside the party tonight and we will probably make a decision on that during that discussion and will clarify our position," Safarian said in reference to a potential partnership with Ter-Petrosian and/or Baghdasarian.

Political analysts, however, take a dimmer view. With the February 9 deadline past, one observer says, the time for unified campaigns is gone. Rather, he asserts, Heritage will now have to decide which campaign it plans to support – Ter-Petrosian or Baghdasarian.

"From the legal point of view, the time for unifications is up, and even if one of the candidates speaks out about withdrawing his candidacy in favor of another candidate, it will no longer have the impact that it would have had before February 9," commented pro-opposition political analyst Aghasi Yenokian.

Yenokian attributes the failure to agree on a unified campaign to the ambitions of both candidates and government pressure.

On the evening of February 8, Armenian President Robert Kocharian called on Baghdasarian, a former government protégé, to refrain from linking his campaign with that of Ter-Petrosian. Doing so, Kocharian asserted, would cost the onetime parliamentary leader "at least half of his electorate."

"[T]he electorate of Orinats Yerkir is an electorate which is longing for stability and is not embittered for the most part. I don’t think its mood is compatible with that of Levon Ter-Petrosian’s embittered camp," he said, pointing out that many Orinats Yerkir supporters would rather vote for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian than the "discredited" ex-president.

Baghdasarian has described as "slander" a report by one Yerevan newspaper that claimed that he had been invited to Prime Minister Sarkisian’s summer cottage and offered the post of premier if Sarkisian is elected and Baghdasarian does not join forces with Ter-Petrosian.

Baghdasarian has largely dodged any clear-cut statement about his talks with the former president. But he has clearly indicated a reluctance to play second fiddle to any other candidate.

At a February 11 Yerevan meeting with non-governmental organizations, he reminded participants that he has "hundreds of thousands of supporters."

"We discussed both options: Levon Ter-Petrosian joining me, and our joining him," he said. "I am not struggling for the runner-up’s position. I am struggling for the post of Armenia’s president. I am confident that I will be in the runoff. Time will show whether Serzh Sarkisian or Levon Ter-Petrosian are with me in the second round."

Under Armenia’s election law, a candidate must win an absolute majority of votes to secure election in the first round of voting.

Nonetheless, Baghdasarian still maintains that "opposition consolidation" in both rounds is "a political necessity."

Such assertions, notes independent political analyst Yervand Bozoyan, have put a question mark over the question of opposition unification from the get-go.

"It is clear to everyone that Levon Ter-Petrosian is an opposition frontrunner, however, each candidate has his own viewpoint about his rating and it seems to each of them that he holds the most weight," Bozoyan said. "In this case, a conventionally ‘weak’ candidate could easily join, but not Artur Baghdasarian. There is a question of serious ambitions here."

The inability of Ter-Petrosian and Baghdasarian to merge campaigns did not come as a surprise to members of the governing Republican Party of Armenia. Prime Minister Sarkisian, the odds-on favorite to the win the presidential vote, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Armenian Service that he was "simply sure" that his rivals would not be able to reconcile their differences. The reason why? "[A]s they say," noted the prime minister, "we know our customers."

Editorís Note: Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for the weekly in Yerevan.