It’s prudent always to expect the unexpected from a man who keeps lions in his back yard.
Tycoon Gagik Tsarukian, the man with exotic pets, heads the Prosperous Armenia Party, which finished with just under one-third of the vote in Armenia’s May 6 parliamentary elections. A few days later, he confounded Armenia’s political establishment with an announcement that his party will not rejoin the governing coalition. Speculation is now mounting in Yerevan that Tsarukian may potentially challenge President Serzh Sargsyan in next year’s presidential election.
“Gagik Tsarukian now needs a rope-walker’s skills in order to balance between both [government and opposition] spheres,” commented pollster Aharon Adibekian, the director of Yerevan’s Sociometer Center.
Prosperous Armenia had been a junior member since 2007 in the governing coalition, which is led by Sargsyan’s Republican Party. But on May 24, Tsarukian declared that such a subservient role “is inexpedient for the party.” He added that he is ready to suffer “losses” to “maintain the people’s trust.”
By rejecting a coalition with the Republican Party, Prosperous Armenia, which holds 37 of parliament’s 131 seats, loses portfolios for four ministers, four deputy ministers, and a bevy of regional political posts. Those positions often come in handy at election time, due to the fact that they can deploy so-called administrative resources on behalf of their political parties and favored candidates.
Tsarukian’s surprise announcement sparked a flood of rumors that the party is trying to seize the initiative from Armenia’s relatively weak opposition ahead of the February 2013 presidential vote. Prosperous Armenia has the reputation for a semi-messianic sense of mission and generous gift-giving -- everything from tractors to healthcare, on the campaign trail and off -- that suggest the party, and its colorful leader, will not want to rest in the shadows.
At this stage, though, the party’s future trajectory is less than clear. Citing “his extremely busy schedule,” Tsarukian missed the new parliament’s first session on May 31, and has remained a no-show.
At the same time, Sargsyan’s Republican Party has given no outward sign of concern that a political battle with Tsarukian, a former world and European arm-wrestling champion (in 1996 and 1998, respectively), may lie ahead. Senior Republican Party members have downplayed Tsarukian’s announcement, stressing to reporters that everyone is free to make a choice, and that they do not rule out “possible cooperation” with Prosperous Armenia.
Yet, as the Republican Party, which holds 69 seats in parliament, moves ahead with cabinet plans with its junior partner, the six-seat Rule of Law (Orinats Yerkir) Party, Prosperous Armenia appears nowhere in sight.
Senior Prosperous Armenia MP Naira Zohrabian has declared that the party supports a “constructive approach” to politics, but did not elaborate.
In theory, Armenia’s opposition might appear ripe for a fresh face; none of the three main opposition parties gained more than 10 percent of the vote for parliament. But if Tsarukian is striving to become the face of Armenia’s opposition, he will have to contend with the existing opposition leader – Levon Ter-Petrosian, a fiery orator and ex-president who heads of the Armenian National Congress (ANC).
Since the fatal post-election clashes between Ter-Petrosian’s supporters and police in 2008, attendance at ANC rallies has dwindled, but it holds seven seats in parliament and remains the country’s largest opposition force. ANC leaders assert that they have no intention of ceding their leadership role among opposition political forces.
ANC political coordinator Levon Zurabian commented that the party believes “that cooperation is possible with all political forces, with which we are able to unite on legislative initiatives aimed at weakening the positions of Serzh Sargsyan’s regime,” but underlined that the ANC “will undertake the role of an engine in these initiatives, and in forming an anti-RPA [Republican Party of Armenia] camp.”
Zurabian said he had no knowledge of a Prosperous Armenia plan to join the opposition.
Other sizeable opposition parties – the Heritage Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutiun (with five parliamentary seats each) – similarly are not extending a welcoming hand to Tsarukian. “The opposition must not allow a scenario in which another candidate, a protégé of the governmental candidate becomes the favorite,” drily commented Stepan Safarian, the former Heritage parliamentary faction leader, in reference to Tsarukian and President Sargsyan’s presumed run for reelection.
Analyst Manvel Sargsian, director of research at Yerevan’s Armenian Center for National and International Studies, a think-tank founded by Heritage Party leader Raffi Hovanissian, shares the scepticism that Prosperous Armenia can reinvent itself “on the opposite pole” of Armenian politics.
“[T]hey are just fighting to offer ‘more expensive’ assistance to the Republican Party of Armenia,” commented Sargsian. “Tsarukian’s moves, his silence and wait-and-see policy are hinting at this.”
Adibekian, the pollster, believes that Tsarukian’s refusal to join the government coalition may already have won him some opposition support, but cautions that many of Prosperous Armenia’s votes may have come from people attracted by the party’s formerly close ties with the Republicans. “He needs to be very cautious in his game,” the pollster said.
Simply put, “nothing” can be ruled out ahead of next year’s presidential elections, said independent political analyst Yervand Bozoian. “A current pro-government candidate may appear opposition-oriented tomorrow or vice versa; the situation may change unexpectedly.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter in Yerevan and the editor of MediaLab.am.