As Armenia's parliamentary elections approach, attention is focusing on how its relatively fragmented opposition will fare at the polls, and whether any government pressure will be applied to sway the vote. The recent withdrawal of a former Nagorno Karabakh military leader from a race that would have pitted him against the brother of newly named Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian has become a campaign case study for this question.
Twenty-four parties and one election bloc have so far been registered to take part in the May 12 parliamentary elections. Nineteen of the parties, ranging from the Communist Party to the strongly pro-Western Heritage Party, are pro-opposition. The single election bloc registered calls for the impeachment of President Robert Kocharian on the basis of what it claims was the rigged 2003 presidential election. One hundred and forty-one candidates have been registered for 41 first-past-the-post district races.
Final registration ends on April 7. The official campaign season starts on April 8.
Despite their numbers, opposition parties, however, claim that they are ill-matched for the fight ahead, which is expected to be dominated by the two pro-government heavyweights, Republican Party of Armenia, which holds the largest parliamentary faction, and newcomer Prosperous Armenia, which claims the largest membership (370,000) among Armenian political parties. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Instead, relatively weak opposition parties are choosing their battles carefully. Arshak Sadoian, the founding president of the National Democratic Alliance Party and a veteran parliamentarian, has withdrawn from a first-past-the-post race in Yerevan to avoid conflict with another opposition politician and to save party resources for the proportional vote. Another small opposition party, the pro-Western Liberal Progressive Party, took the opposite strategy, withdrawing from the proportional race in an attempt to improve the chances of its leader, Hovhannes Hovhannisian, to win in a single mandate race.
The test case for these maneuvers, however, has been the March 27 withdrawal of Samvel Babaian, leader of the Dashink (Alliance) Party and former de facto defense minister of the separatist Nagorno Karabakh region, from a race in the southern city of Goris that would have pitted him against parliament deputy Alexander Sarkisian, the 51-year-old brother of newly named Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
Instead of Babaian, Dashink will support Samvel Haroutiunian, a candidate backed by former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian's Heritage Party.
The race in electoral district #37 between Sarkisian, a member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia now headed by his brother, and Haroutiunian is expected to be one of the election's fiercest. Already, it has attracted widespread media coverage.
Concerns that heavy government pressure had been brought to bear in Goris in favor of then Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian largely motivated this interest. With Serzh Sarkisian now appointed as prime minister, that interest is only likely to increase. The 53-year-old minister, like Babaian a native of the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region, however, has pledged to ensure that a free and fair parliamentary vote is held nationwide.
Questions raised by the Central Election Commission (CEC) about whether or not Babaian had met the five-year residency requirement for running for parliament were among the events originally cited to suggest that the government had a hand in the Goris race. The former military commander had submitted documents to the CEC indicating that he had lived in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, from 1994 until 2006, Aravot newspaper reported. (Babaian moved to Armenia after being amnestied in 2004 from a 14-year prison term for an alleged plot to assassinate de facto Nagorno Karabakh President Arkady Ghukassian.)
In the end, however, Babaian was registered as a candidate for proportional election on Dashink's 38-member party list.
The residency issue was not Babaian's only difficulty, however. Hmayak Hovhannisian, an unaffiliated parliamentarian who ranks number four on the Dashink party list of candidates for proportional election, told 168 Zham newspaper on March 24 that the National Security Service had interrogated Babaian about allegations that one of his bodyguards possessed an illegal weapon. "This was an attempt to exert pressure on us," Hovhannisian claimed.
As often in Armenian politics, ulterior motives were sought as well. Media outlets have cited Babaian as a likely candidate to replace Prime Minister Sarkisian as defense minister, with some implying that the ex-military leader bowed out of the race against Alexander Sarkisian to enhance his chances for the post. Others have also contended that the 40-year-old Babaian may himself run for president of the self-declared Nagorno Karabakh Republic in July.
Despite the speculation, Dashink Party officials, however, have not stated that government pressure was the reason for Babaian's withdrawal from the Goris race. In a March 27 interview with news agency Noyan Tapan, Gnel Ghlechian, a member of the party's ruling council, cited disappointment with the inability of opposition parties to consolidate locally as a reason for the decision. Local government officials had made deals with opposition members, Ghlechian charged, and had "made use of all administrative and material resources" to deprive opposition members of a fair chance to campaign.
On April 6, domestic election observation group It's Your Choice stated that it will closely monitor the race in Goris for detection of any such practices, the A1+ news site reported.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.