Once the ruling party, then facing the prospect of disappearing completely from the country’s political landscape, the Republican Party of Armenia is reinventing itself as the opposition and will take part in parliamentary elections in December.
At a November 11 party congress, the Republicans chose Vigen Sargsyan, a former defense minister, as deputy head of the party (under former president Serzh Sargsyan – no relation) and to head the ticket for the elections scheduled for December 9. Vigen Sargsyan tacitly acknowledged that the party had no hope of beating the My Step Alliance, the bloc allied with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who took power in the spring after a wave of street protests aimed at ousting the Republicans.
“We propose to be the main opposition force in this election and we think that we have the opportunity, resources, knowledge and experience to do so,” he told reporters. “We have fundamental disagreements with the current authorities.”
Sargsyan struck a note of humility unusual for the party that held a lock on Armenian politics, and the perks that went with it, for more than a decade. "We will go to people and ask for votes, not to have power, not to have privileges, not to use our positions for our gain, but we are going to ask for votes to take on a heavy responsibility, which implies only hard work, sweat, effort, and we want to do it with honor," said Sargsyan.
That Republicans would take part in the elections – in which Civil Contract is expected to roll to an easy victory and cement Pashinyan’s control over Armenia – was not a foregone conclusion. The party sat out of Yerevan municipal elections in August, in which Pashinyan's candidate got over 80 percent of the votes.
The Republicans also have bitterly complained about Pashinyan’s efforts to hold early elections, but in the end they appear to be bringing their top officials into the race. “No matter whether December is beneficial or not, if a party considers itself a political force they have to participate,” said Eduard Sharmazanov, the current speaker of parliament, at the congress.
Still, some Republican heavyweights declined to take part in the vote. Samvel Farmanyan, a member of the party’s executive body, will not be on the party’s list.
The new authorities have intimidated some RPA members into not participating, claimed Armen Ashotyan, a senior party official. “The state apparatus has targeted the RPA’s potential candidates, persistently persuading, mildly threatening them to not get into this [elections]. There is some evidence of that. There are people who speak about it, there are people who have refused to participate due to pressures,” he said, without offering proof.
However, Republicans did recruit at least one prominent new member. Davit Shahnazaryan, a senior foreign ministry official in the 1990s and now a well-known political analyst, will be on the Republicans’ party list. "The imperative of the day is to protect the security of Armenia and Artsakh from revolutionary threats," Shahnazaryan told the news website Tert.am.
They will be entering a crowded field, including the Prosperous Armenia and Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutyun – both represented in the current parliament – as well as a new Sasna Tsrer party and other, smaller forces.
The Republicans’ pivot to the opposition did not convince some analysts. “If you look at the Republicans’ capabilities, they have the knowledge and the life experience to become the opposition,” political scientist Vigen Khachatryan told 1in.tv, an online television news program. “But for that they need to have strong principles and direct their work towards the issues that concern the public now. By listening to their statements I haven’t gotten the impression that they can become the opposition.”
Ani Mejlumyan is a reporter based in Yerevan.