The May 12 parliamentary elections marked a sizeable setback for three of Armenia's best known opposition parties, the People's Party of Armenia, the National Unity Party and the Republic Party. Two prominent opposition members argue that their defeat signals that the time has come for the country's opposition to abandon the tactics of the past.
Based on the Central Election Commission's preliminary results, the Country of Law Party and Heritage Party were the only two opposition parties to clear the 5 percent of the vote barrier to take seats in parliament. The National Unity Party of Artashes Geghamian, a prime force behind the 2004 opposition protests against President Robert Kocharian, registered a mere 3.59 percent of the vote. The People's Party of Armenia, led by former presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian, and the Republic Party of former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian fared even worse, with 1.70 percent and 1.63 percent of the vote, respectively
"These elections were not the victory of the ruling party," commented one veteran opposition member of parliament. "They were the defeat of the opposition."
As a result, many Armenian observers believe that the time has come for a new opposition.
"The era of political scarecrows has passed. Those people who are already involved in other spheres are entering politics," stated sociologist Aharon Adibekian at a May 14 briefing. "We have entered a new stage in the development of [our] political culture."
Coming up with fresh ideas that resonate with average voters, rather than relying on the name recognition of past political celebrities, is widely thought to be the most difficult task now facing the opposition.
Stepan Demirichian and Aram Sarkisian both became politicians following the 1999 assassination of their father (Parliamentary Speaker Karen Demirchian) and brother (Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian), respectively. Since entering the National Assembly in 2003, neither presented any "serious legislative initiative," argued political scientist Styopa Safrarian, director of the Armenian Center of National and International studies, run by Heritage Party leader Raffi Hovannisian.
The time both have spent boycotting parliament to protest President Kocharian's rule as "illegal" led to the impression among voters that neither party was in a position to attend to the needs of their supporters, Safrarian said.
The boycott of the 2005 constitutional referendum was a further opportunity lost, and one which affected mainstream opposition parties' chances at the 2007 polls, added Shavarsh Kocharian, the leader of the relatively small oppositional National Democratic Party, which did not boycott the vote. Kocharian entered parliament in 2003 as a member of Demirchian's Justice bloc of opposition parties.
"[W]hen the authorities, under pressure from both the opposition and European organizations, introduced such changes in the form of constitutional reform, the opposition parties decided to boycott the referendum, instead of declaring it as their own victory," Kocharian said.
An inability to define themselves apart from their opposition to the government continues to plague both parties, and cost them votes, he continued. "They lacked their own ideas, and adopted the rules of the game as dictated by the authorities; in fact they were confusing the goal with the means to reach it," said Kocharian, who himself lost the parliament seat he has held since 1990. "They presented entering the parliament as their goal without presenting reasons for why they need to be in parliament."
"There are scores of people who are unhappy with the current situation, but the opposition parties have been unable to offer any new goal for society," continued Kocharian. "I suppose that in the future the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] will have a lot to do in this respect."
That failure cost both parties support and respect from the West, Kocharian believes a view echoed by other Armenian observers.
Meanwhile, the two opposition parties represented in Armenia's new parliament are trying to define their own legislation agenda.
Heritage's Safrarian told EurasiaNet that the main goal for both parties will be to push for a more pro-Western foreign policy. Heritage also plans to call for the reversal of previous privatizations (including telecommunications company ArmenTel, the Yerevan Brandy factory and the fifth unit of the Hrazadan TPP thermal plant) plus recent controversial land grabs in historical Yerevan neighborhoods, said Safrarian, who will hold a seat for the party in the new parliament.
The Country of Law Party has also proposed closer relations with the West, but with little elaboration as yet.
The extent to which any of these ideas will resonate with voters remains, of course, unknown.
But one former high-ranking official under ex-President Levon Ter-Petrossian (1991-1998), who asked not to be named, calls these changes an opportunity, another step away from Armenia's post-Soviet political heritage. Armenia is now undergoing a "transformation process," he said -- a time of political evolution, not revolution.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.