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By Hrach Melkumian
Armenia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) stopped accepting nominations for the February 19 presidential elections late Friday, sealing the list of 15 contenders put forward by political parties and civic groups.

They will now have to collect at least 35,000 supporting signatures and submit them to the CEC by December 31 in order to be officially registered as presidential candidates.

Eight of the nominated hopefuls represent political parties that form a 16-party opposition coalition which hoped to field a single challenger against President Robert Kocharian -- the favorite to win the ballot. Although some of them may still pull out of the race later on, the main opposition heavyweights, including Artashes Geghamian, Stepan Demirchian and Vazgen Manukian, are widely expected to remain in contention.

Geghamian’s candidacy might be endorsed by the Armenian Communist Party (HKK), a major opposition force. HKK first secretary Vladimir Darpinian is seeking registration as a presidential candidate though. Demirchian, for his part, may be backed by former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian, who has also filed for registration.

The final list of the nominated candidates does not comprise former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, a fact that ended a six-month speculation about his possible return to active politics after a nearly five-year political oblivion. Senior members of his Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) party said earlier on Friday that they will not field another presidential candidate.

One of the HHSh leaders, Andranik Hovakimian, argued that any HHSh candidate would be vulnerable to “populist attacks” by the pro-Kocharian media and the 16-party coalition. “I am sure that Kocharian will be easily reelected,” Hovakimian told RFE/RL, laying the blame on the opposition.

“These elections have nothing to do with politics. This is a struggle of individuals,” he added.

One of the presidential nominees, Petros Makeyan of the pro-HHSh Democratic Fatherland part, says he decided to join the race after it became evident that Ter-Petrosian will not run for president.

Two other candidates, Moscow-based entrepreneur Aram Karapetian and former National Security Minister official Ruben Avagian, are little known to the public. Karapetian is campaigning on a hard-line nationalist platform and has won the endorsement of one of the 16 opposition groups, the Union for Constitutional Rights (SIM).

Another candidate, former Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hayrikian, is running for president for the fourth consecutive time, more than any other Armenian politician has. Hayrikian, who had backed Kocharian’s rise to power in 1998 but is now critical of the current regime, will thus have contested all presidential elections held in Armenia since independence.
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