Armenia's dominant political party is not taking the upcoming presidential election lightly. At its recent party congress, the Republican Party of Armenia nominated Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian to be its presidential candidate in the February 19 election. Party leaders also opened a rhetorical offensive against Sarkisian's main challenger, former president Levon Ter-Petrosian.
The congress, held November 10, was designed to reinforce in the minds of voters an aura of the Republican Party's invincibility. Held in an indoor sports arena, the speaker's podium at the congress was flanked by giant television screens, infusing the event with Western-style glitziness heretofore unseen in Armenia. Delegates, as widely expected, anointed Prime Minister Sarkisian as President Robert Kocharian's would-be successor. First, Sarkisian was elected as party president, a position that has been vacant since the death of his predecessor Andranik Margarian. Then, delegates unanimously backed Sarkisian's presidential candidacy.
In an attempt to cement the front-runner image in the minds of the electorate, party leaders emphasized the fact that its membership now stands at 135,000, up from roughly 25,000 as recently as 2005. According to a report presented by Tigran Torosian, a party vice president and chairman of the National Assembly, the Republican Party enjoys a hammer-lock on local political power, with 65 percent of local administrative posts being held by its members. On the national level, the party has an outright majority in parliament. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Sarkisian, speaking at the conference, cast himself as the guardian of continuity, and the candidate best able to defend Armenia's interests in the international arena. Referring to the ongoing negotiations on a Nagorno-Karabakh peace settlement, one of the country's top foreign policy priorities, Sarkisian said that, if elected, his administration will "never allow Azerbaijan and Turkey to impose their will on us."
Despite enjoying preponderance of influence over Armenia's political process, party leaders are evidently concerned about Ter-Petrosian's entry into the race. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Torosian devoted a considerable portion of his report to bashing Ter-Petrosian, warning about the danger of "revanchism."
Sarkisian followed up with a blistering attack on Ter-Petrosian's leadership during the early and mid 1990s. Ter-Petrosian, according to Sarkisian, left "people on the brink of despair, a ruined economy, a mood of defeatism." The prime minister also insisted that Ter-Petrosian apologize for his political "errors."
When he declared his own candidacy in late October, Ter-Petrosian said his intention was to dismantle the "pyramid of corruption" over which Sarkisian and Kocharian allegedly presided. In response, Sarkisian shot back November 10 that Ter-Petrosian was seeking to "dismantle the pyramid of our statehood."
Outside of the party congress, the machinery of state under the control of the Republican Party of Armenia appears to be gearing up for a campaign against Ter-Petrosian. Media observers note, for example, that news reports about Ter-Petrosian have virtually disappeared from state-controlled outlets. Tax inspectors have also moved against businesses owned by one of Ter-Petrosian's most important financial backers, Khachatur Sukiasian, himself an independent member of parliament.
In comments published November 7 in the Aravot daily, Sukiasian accused the government of instructing various state agencies to investigate his businesses in retribution for his political activities. "I take all this quietly. My business[es] [are] absolutely clean," Sukiasian insisted. He added that he would resist the government pressure using all legal means at his disposal, including an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Ter-Petrosian, meanwhile, continues to campaign. At a November 3 appearance, Ter-Petrosian said that, if elected, he would seek to cooperate with the current, Republican Party-dominated parliamentary majority, adding that he would work with any prime minister than the legislature nominates, except "the current one."
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.