Wednesday, February 13, 2008
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation: An “Alternative” to Politics as Usual?
Gayane Abrahamyan: 02/13/08

In a metaphysical tangle of politics, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation is part of Armenia’s current government while claiming to be running a presidential campaign in opposition to it. Some analysts say voters may not see the distinction.

"We are the alternative," declared Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (ARF) presidential candidate Vahan Hovhannisian at a February 11 rally in the Ararat region, local media reported. "You want to change something in your life, to change the structure, we can do that. Neither the ex-government [candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian], nor today’s [candidate Serzh Sarkisian, the current prime minister] can succeed, as they will change only the names."

"One of them tries to win [voters] over by hatred and regime change. The other one tries to keep the status quo by using the state’s leverage and pressure," elaborated Hrant Margaryan, an ARF leader. "We try to win over both [camps.]"

The nationalist-socialist party, Armenia’s oldest, supported outgoing President Robert Kocharian following the 1998 and 2003 presidential elections and was until 2007 a part of Armenia’s governing coalition.

On the eve of the 2007 parliamentary elections, it adopted opposition-style slogans while still holding three ministerial portfolios in the government. In the end, it declined to join Prime Minister Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) and the Prosperous Armenia Party in a formal coalition, but gained four ministerial posts: Agriculture, Education and Science, Labor, and Healthcare.

Some pro-government politicians question how a party can be part of the government, and yet criticize it. "I said it long ago: It’s like staying a virgin and having sex at the same time," commented veteran RPA parliamentarian Galust Sahakian. "That’s not possible."

Given the party’s 117-year history, much of the population sees the Dashnak – the popular name for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation – as a strong political force, but analysts say it is difficult to tell whether or not that translates into making Hovhannisian a viable "alternative" candidate. The campaign of Hovhannisian, a deputy speaker of parliament, is the first presidential campaign undertaken by a Dashnak leader since 1991.

"People see the ARF as a part of the government, since for already 10 years they have been in the government and parliament," said political analyst Nune Mkrtchian. "However, since there have been many positive changes in the spheres which they control, specifically in the Ministry of Education, people tend to trust the ARF."

Some critics, though, would argue that the party’s working partnership with the RPA is not limited to politics alone. Hovhannisian’s daughter is married to the nephew of Prime Minister Sarkisian. Supporters of rival candidate Ter-Petrosian have alleged that Hovhannisian is trying to attract opposition voters in order to "share" them with Sarkisian in a run-off vote.

In a January 30 campaign appearance, Hovhannisian termed such a suggestion as "a mean and insidious lie." He insisted that he is his own candidate. "We will go all the way to the end, and I won’t give the votes I win to anyone."

The criticism, though, comes not only from the Ter-Petrosian camp. Pro-government television stations have aired Soviet-era anti-Dashnak films where the party is shown as an "enemy of the nation." Dashnak supporters have blamed government obstructionism for causing power failures at two February 11 rallies. Officials have not responded to the charges.

But if voters are confused about the ARF’s identity ("No to the Past, No to the Present," proclaim slogans), a handful of campaign novelties introduced by the party have at least gained it notoriety. Among them: a take-off on a US party primary (with only two candidates, though; Hovhannisian won), the introduction of "contracts" with voters and a three-hour-long television Q&A with viewers.

The Hovhannisian campaign claims that some 229,352 citizens have already signed an individual agreement with the deputy parliamentary speaker in which he commits to fulfill individual promises – primarily related to social equality, accessible healthcare, fair elections and rule of law – if elected president. Some party members have gone so far as to claim that citizens can take their contracts to court and petition for a judgment against Hovhannisian, in the event he is elected and does not fulfill the commitments. Officially, however, the party maintains that these so-called contracts are not legally binding.

Regardless, sociologist Aharon Adibekyan comments that the measures strengthened the party’s position among voters; opinion polls done by Sociometer (widely criticized as a pro-government pollster) between November and December 2007 show a 2 to 3 percent increase in Hovhannisian’s standing. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

A survey of 1,500 citizens run by British pollster Populus for Armenian Public Television between January 21 and 29 put Hovhannisian in fourth place, with 7.6 percent of the vote.

Whatever Hovhannisian’s true standing, for many voters who signed the Dashnak candidate’s agreement, the polls do little to diminish their need to believe that the deputy parliamentary speaker will keep his word. "When a person signs his name under his promises," said Narine Simonian, a 54-year-old doctor, "I believe that he undertook this to complete his work and will not forget that we will keep it and show it after the elections."

Editor’s Note: Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the weekly in Yerevan.