Two weeks before Armenia's presidential vote, two key opposition candidates and a prominent opposition party leader are in talks about a possible merger. If a unified candidate emerges from those discussions, Armenia's February 19 election could prove uncharacteristically competitive.
On February 1, former president Levon Ter-Petrosian told voters in Vanadzor, Armenia's third largest city, that an opposition merger may be in the offing. Specifically, he hinted that fellow presidential candidate Artur Baghdasarian, a former parliamentary speaker, and Heritage Party leader Raffi Hovannisian, would join forces with his presidential campaign. "If we say that there are serious grounds for saying that they will unite, then they are indeed quite serious," Ter-Petrosian campaign spokesperson Arman Musinian told EurasiaNet. "Negotiations are underway and details of the format of unification will be clear in the coming days."
The Heritage Party was one of only two opposition parties to gain seats in parliament during the 2007 legislative elections. [For background see the EurasiaNet special feature Armenia: Vote 2007 ]. The only Diaspora figure among Armenia's political celebrities, Hovannisian enjoys a Teddy Roosevelt-style image among many voters -- a political straight-shooter who is impervious to corruption. His endorsement is widely expected to give a presidential candidate a significant boost.
In late 2007, Hovannisian, a former foreign minister under Ter-Petrosian, said that he would decide which candidate to support based on their responses to a questionnaire. With the election two weeks away, Heritage has still not officially made its choice. "Currently, we are at a stormy negotiating stage and it will be clear during this week what decision we make," Heritage Party member and spokesman Hovsep Khurshudian told EurasiaNet. "We hope to appear in the Levon Ter-Petrosian, Artur Baghdasarian, Raffi Hovannisian format, whose likelihood will become clear soon."
Baghdasarian heads the Orinats Yerkir (Rule of Law) Party, and is generally viewed as the third leading contender in the presidential race, behind the government-backed candidate, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, and Ter-Petrosian. At a February 3 rally in Yerevan's Liberty Square, he expressed confidence that opposition unification would take place.
"There is much talk today as to who will join whom. Today it is not important who will join whom, but consolidation is very important. Today we are in active political talks," Baghdasarian told an audience of roughly 20,000 to 25,000 supporters. "Today it will be an honor for any politician to join us, to join these tens of thousands of people and change this unlawful system."
With only days remaining before the election, political analysts believe that such a joining of forces would give the opposition a lift in efforts to defeat the odds-on presidential favorite, Sarkisian and the governing Republican Party of Armenia's well-oiled political machine that backs him. With a variety of candidates potentially splitting the opposition vote, Sarkisian has long been expected to register an easy victory. Opposition unity, however, could seriously upset the Sarkisian side's election calculus. At the very least, a coalition candidate would likely make this presidential vote the tightest in Armenia's post-Soviet history.
Previous presidential and parliamentary votes in Armenia have been marred by allegations of fraud. Officials in out-going President Robert Kocharian's administration have vowed that the February 19 will conform to international standards. However, opposition leaders have already accused incumbent authorities of improperly using "administrative resources" to retain power. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive ].
Many analysts and politicians believe that Ter-Petrosian will emerge as the unification candidate. The former president's plans for a Yerevan rally on February 9 have helped spur such a belief. Candidates have until February 9 to withdraw from the race.
"About 18 political parties have now joined Levon Ter-Petrosian and I do not exclude that in the next 10 days this number will increase," said independent political analyst David Petrosian. "If Artur Baghdasarian and Raffi Hovannisian join, it will be a purely political bloc, which will be received well by the people and will bring advantages to the unified candidate."
On the other side of the political fence, Republican Party of Armenia MP Armen Ashotian downplays the potential impact of an opposition united front. "If such a thing nevertheless happens and, say, Artur Baghdasarian will join Levon Ter-Petrosian, it will be like the return of the prodigal son," Ashotian commented. Baghdasarian was first elected to parliament in 1995 as a member of Ter-Petrosian's Armenian National Movement. "And if Ter-Petrosian joins Baghdasarian, it will be clear for all that his seeming great authority does not correspond with reality."
Baghdasarian, meanwhile, has alleged that he has received a death threat, telling supporters at the February 3 Yerevan rally that "the incumbent authorities" will be to blame "[i]f something happens to me." Law enforcement officials are investigating the reported threat.
The claim is seen by some including Prime Minister Sarkisian -- as political stagecraft. If a Ter-Petrosian-Baghdasarian pact goes through, Ashotian added, the two candidates' potential votes may "go to the RPA or, say, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation." Parliamentary Speaker Vahan Hovhannisian is the Armenian Revolutionary Federation's candidate for president.
"Even if, in the best case, three of the candidates get some more votes through uniting, it will not be enough even to take the election to a runoff," claimed Ashotian. "There is such a thing as plain sociology that can give an answer to your questions."
"Plain sociology," for the RPA, is represented by polls performed by the Sociometer research center, an organization derided by opposition candidates for allegedly manipulating data. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive ]. According to recent polling data published by Sociometer, Ter-Petrosian has the highest negative rating of any candidate, hovering around 40 percent, according to the pollster's director, Aharon Adibekian. The survey of public attitudes toward the presidential candidates was given to 2,240 people and had a 1 percent margin of error.
Based on the results of the previous and current opinion polls, Adibekian put Ter-Petrosian's support rating in the neighborhood of 1 to 3 percent. Critics term that rating "ridiculous."
Despite such an allegedly low rating, critics point out, Ter-Petrosian remains the target of a steady stream of negative coverage by television outlets, an imbalance mentioned in the latest report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions' election observation mission. A regional campaign office for the former president was also recently set on fire.
Apart from unequal television coverage, the OSCE/ODIHR report  mentioned that supporters of Baghdasarian and Ter-Petrosian encountered problems in different regions to rent campaign office space.