Armenia's leading opposition parties have failed to join forces for upcoming parliamentary elections, in what most local commentators view as good news for President Robert Kocharian and his political allies. The multitude of opposition candidates and persisting mutual mistrust among top opposition leaders are thought to make it easier for the presidential camp to retain control of the Armenian parliament.
The elections, scheduled for May 12, will be a rehearsal of a more important presidential ballot due early next year. There are strong indications that Kocharian, who is completing his second and final term in office, plans to hand over power to his influential Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian and remain in government in another capacity. Victory in the legislative polls is seen as a key element of this putative scenario. Analysts say a fragmented opposition will have serious trouble thwarting its realization.
"In effect, the opposition has decided not to participate in the elections, as participating independently means creating favorable conditions for the reproduction of the current regime," the Yerevan newspaper 168 Zham editorialized last week.
The leaders of the country's three largest opposition parties think otherwise. Those are Kocharian's two main challengers in the 2003 presidential election, Stepan Demirchian and Artashes Geghamian, and former Parliamentary Speaker Artur Baghdasarian, whose Country of Law Party was expelled from Kocharian's governing coalition last year. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Their conflicting presidential ambitions are what seem to have precluded the establishment of electoral alliances both among themselves and with other major opposition groups.
Aram Abrahamian, editor of the Aravot daily, also sees "pragmatic" motives behind their refusal to cooperate with other opposition forces. "Those parties that think they can overcome the 5 percent vote barrier [for entering parliament] are not interested in uniting with anyone," he wrote on March 3.
Of all Armenian opposition politicians, former parliamentary speaker Baghdasarian, 38, has clearly attracted the greatest interest from the West, owing to his relatively young age, populist appeal and increasingly pro-Western discourse. According to some opposition sources, United States officials have encouraged him to team up with other pro-Western opposition groups, notably the radical Republic Party of former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian (no relation to the defense minister). Both Sarkisian and Baghdasarian visited Washington in late February to meet US administration officials and lawmakers. But the ambitious ex-speaker made it clear shortly before the trip that his party will go it alone. "In artificial alliances, jealousy is stronger than love," he explained at a news conference in Yerevan.
Demirchian, who claims to have been robbed of victory in the last presidential election, showed greater readiness to form an alliance with Sarkisian's Republic and three other opposition parties, but on conditions that were rejected by the latter. Those reportedly included a demand that the would-be bloc pick Demirchian as its undisputed leader and commit to endorsing his 2008 presidential bid.
In the event, the four parties failed to unite even without Demirchian. Last-ditch attempts by their leaders to cut a pre-election deal failed on February 27 for reasons that are still not fully clear. The participants of the talks have refrained from publicly blaming each other for the flop. But one of them, Armenia's US-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, is privately accused by other oppositionists of scuttling the deal by staking a leadership claim.
Vazgen Manukian, a veteran opposition figure who was also involved in the talks, believes that contesting the elections in this situation makes no sense. "It's like taking on a regular army with a private militia," Manukian told EurasiaNet just days after his National Democratic Union, one of Armenia's oldest opposition parties, decided to boycott the vote. He argued that only a "broad-based opposition movement" would have a chance to stave off what he expects will be massive electoral fraud.
But Republic Party leader Sarkisian, the Kocharian administration's most uncompromising opponent, is far less pessimistic on this score, while sharing Manukian's disappointment with the opposition discord. "There are real possibilities of achieving serious political changes and tangible results in Armenia," Sarkisian said in a EurasiaNet interview.
Sarkisian indicated that his party will be seeking not to win the polls (which he, too, claims will be rigged) but to use them for launching a campaign of street protests aimed at toppling the government. "I don't exclude that a number of opposition forces will hold joint rallies right before and after the elections," he said. "Those joint rallies will attract large numbers of people."
Sarkisian's closest potential allies are supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, most of them grouped around the former ruling Armenian National Movement (ANM). They say a repeat of serious fraud, which has marred just about every election held in Armenia since independence, could lead opposition heavyweights like Demirchian and Baghdasarian to join anti-government rallies. "At some point, the opposition will be forced to unite," the ANM chairman, Ararat Zurabian, told journalists on March 2.
But with many Armenians apathetic and cynical about politics, the question is whether the opposition can mobilize a mass pro-democracy movement. Its most recent attempt to emulate the 2003 "Rose Revolution" in neighboring Georgia failed almost three years ago, after a crackdown on street protests against the election of President Kocharian. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Kocharian camp, meanwhile, looks increasingly self-confident, buoyed by its overwhelming control of election commissions and the TV airwaves as well as vast financial resources. The Republican Party of Armenia, the biggest government force controlled by Defense Minister Sarkisian, is already trying to capitalize on its grip on most central and local government bodies in order to win the largest number of parliament seats. Also eyeing a strong showing is the Prosperous Armenia Party of Gagik Tsarukian, the country's arguably wealthiest businessman close to Kocharian. Over the past year, Tsarukian seems to have attracted a substantial following thanks to supposed charitable work which critics deem wholesale vote buying.
According to unconfirmed media reports, the two parties have already agreed to form a coalition government after the elections. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.