Armenia's parliamentary election campaign has formally kicked off. Officials insist that the election will be free and fair. Yet the election season already has become engulfed in controversy after a local court barred two candidates from running in Echmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The campaign season officially opened April 8. The district court ruling two days later disqualified two candidates -- Echmiadzin's incumbent MP, Hakob Hakobian, along with a non-partisan candidate, Susanna Harutiunian. The court ruled in both cases that signatures on registration petitions were forged.
The case, however, touches on more than routine questions of candidate registration. Both Hakobian, a member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, and Harutiunian allege the court ruling is part of an overall campaign of intimidation waged by Gen. Seyran Saroian, a retired commander of the Fourth Army Corps who served under former Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Armenia's newly named prime minister and the acting Republican Party leader. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Saroian is the Republican Party's official nominee for the Echmiadzin seat.
Hakobian and Harutiunian maintain that Saroian is also responsible for a mysterious shooting and fire that targeted them both. On April 8, unidentified individuals shot at a car in which Hakobian was sitting as it was parked outside a local restaurant. Hours later, a fire allegedly broke out in a Harutiunian-owned factory, which houses her campaign headquarters. Local police are investigating both incidents.
Republican Party officials have roundly denied the charges that the organization is attempting to push Hakobian and Harutiunian out of the race in favor of Saroian. Galust Sahakian, head of the Republican Party's parliamentary faction, told reporters on April 11 that the court decision to disqualify Hakobian and Harutiunian is "final" and "not subject to political evaluations."
"I am for solutions without pressure [being brought]," he said of the situation in Echmiadzin.
A spokesman at Saroian's election headquarters in Echmiadzin, a town about 20 kilometers outside of Yerevan, insisted that the Republican Party's candidate had nothing to do with either the shooting or the fire. "Those were provocational steps. They simply feel that they will lose in the elections and are in a panic now," Hakob Martuni said, referring to Hakobian and Harutiunian. "They themselves staged the shooting and arson attacks."
Hakobian and Harutiunian, along with their respective supporters, scoff at the notion that the incidents were staged. "Naturally, it was not extraterrestrials who organized all that, but it was done with a clear purpose in mind -- to eliminate Hakob Hakobian and Susanna Harutiunian from the election struggle," said Hakobian's campaign manager, Karlen Khachikian.
"If these two strong candidates are eliminated from the field, even with a turnout of 30 percent Saroian will win the elections, which is impossible otherwise," he said prior to the court ruling.
Harutiunian told EurasiaNet that she believes the fire was a warning sign. "Seyran's men have been constantly intimidating me, making different proposals for me to drop out of the race," Harutiunian claimed.
Hakobian's campaign manager alleged that so-called "administrative resources" are being brought to bear on his candidate. The homes and offices of supporters were subjected to police searches after the April 8 shooting incident, Khachikian told EurasiaNet. Local police have declined to comment on the investigation.
Hakobian and Harutiunian assert that the district court refused to subpoena witnesses who could have proven that petition signatures were valid. The suit to have the two disqualified was brought by another man named Hakob Hakobian, who is also a member of the Republican Party and also a candidate for parliament. The pair maintains that the second Hakobian is in the campaign field solely to confuse voters.
To date, the government has not responded officially to developments in Echmiadzin. But pro-government media outlets, such as AR TV, have characterized Hakobian and Harutiunian as "vote-riggers."
On April 10, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) met with Hakobian, the incumbent MP, and stated that they would include the situation in Echmiadzin in the OSCE election observers' final reports, OSCE/ODIHR Observation Mission media analyst Ivan Godorski told journalists.
The OSCE has never recognized any of Armenia's previous parliamentary votes in the post-Soviet era as free and fair. The government, including Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, has stressed that it wants this election to be different. Armenia's official campaign period ends on May 10, two days before the elections. Twenty-four political parties and one bloc are contesting 90 seats on proportional party lists, while 134 candidates are vying for 41 first-past-the-post seats.
Marianna Grigoryan and Gayane Mkrtchyan are reporters for the ArmeniaNow Online weekly in Yerevan.