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By Armen Zakarian and Karine Kalantarian

Stepan Demirchian emerged on Saturday as the most likely joint opposition candidate in the February presidential elections as his People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK) received enthusiastic pledges of support from its allies in the 16-party opposition coalition.

Almost all members of the loose alliance hinted at their backing for Demirchian’s candidacy at the HZhK’s one-day pre-election congress.

“On behalf of the National Democratic Union (AZhM) I am pleased to welcome your and [at the same time] our congress,” Vazgen Manukian, the AZhM leader and another opposition heavyweight, said in his address to hundreds of party delegates.

“Without a major HZhK role, it is almost impossible to solve problems facing Armenia,” said Shavarsh Kocharian of the National Democratic Party (AZhK). “We must do everything to act with a single candidate in the upcoming presidential elections.”

Even the normally reserved leader of the Armenian Communist Party (HKK), Vladimir Darpinian, made a passionate call for opposition unity, lavishing praise on Demirchian and the HZhK.

Putting forward a single candidate popular enough to defeat President Robert Kocharian is the main declared goal of the opposition grouping formed last August. But until now its leaders were unable to agree on who should take on that role. One of them, Artashes Geghamian, has indicated that he will run for president even without a multi-party opposition endorsement.

Geghamian, whose presidential ambitions reportedly do not sit well with Demirchian and Manukian, was the only major opposition leader who conspicuously avoided making a speech at the HZhK congress. Confronted by journalists, he claimed that there were “no agreed plans” for him to speak at the gathering. Geghamian also ducked a question on whether he stands ready to withdraw his candidacy in Demirchian’s candidacy if it is backed by most alliance members.

Manukian, Geghamian and especially Demirchian are seen as the most popular opposition politicians in Armenia. The latter inherited much of his popularity from his father Karen Demirchian -- the former parliament speaker assassinated in the October 1999 terrorist attack on the National Assembly.

Also influential is Aram Sarkisian of the “Hanrapetutyun” (Republic) party. Its chairman, Albert Bazeyan, told reporters on Saturday that Hanrapetutyun will likely nominate Sarkisian for the presidency later this month, but made it clear that he will be ready to pull out of the race in support of a more popular opposition contender.

“I suppose that the 16 parties will field several candidates and, at a certain point in the election campaign, will settle on a single candidate, taking into consideration public attitudes toward that candidate in the first instance,” Bazeyan said.

Bazeyan also agreed with the view that the opposition does not necessarily need to come up with one candidate in order to scuttle Kocharian’s plans to win an outright majority of votes in the first round of voting.
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