By Karine Kalantarian and Artem Chernamorian in Gyumri
Stepan Demirchian, a leading presidential candidate, received on Saturday a major boost to his electoral chances, securing an anticipated endorsement from former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian, another top opposition contender. Sarkisian said he is dropping out of the race to increase the likelihood of President Robert Kocharian’s defeat in the February 19 election.
“Today I withdraw my candidacy in favor of Stepan Demirchian and call on my supporters, fellow party members and friends to campaign for Stepan Demirchian with the same diligence and dedication,” he declared in a televised speech.
Sarkisian said the decision amounts to the creation of an electoral alliance between his Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party and Demirchian’s People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK). He said “this step of unity and consolidation against the illegitimate regime” is an attempt to revive the now defunct Miasnutyun (Unity) bloc which governed Armenia in 1999-2000.
Miasnutyun, which won the 1999 parliamentary elections, was led by Sarkisian’s brother Vazgen and Demirchian’s father Karen who ruled Soviet Armenia from 1974-1988. The two charismatic leaders were assassinated in the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament.
“Miasnutyun won in 1999 and I assure you that it will this time as well,” Sarkisian claimed. “We will form a government of national unity.”
The ex-premier’s move is seen as cementing Demirchian’s status as Kocharian’s number one challenger. The HZhK leader has been buoyed by warm receptions he has gotten in various, mostly rural areas of the country during the first two weeks of campaigning. He is now expected to win another significant endorsement from Raffi Hovannisian, a popular U.S.-born politician barred from contesting the polls because of not being an Armenian citizen for the past ten years.
By contrast, Demirchian’s number one opposition rival, Artashes Geghamian, unexpectedly failed to win over another opposition candidate, Garnik Markarian of the Socialist Armenia bloc. Markarian declined to give any motives for the move.
Last November, Socialist Armenia joined forces with Geghamian’s National Unity and the Armenian Communist Party (HKK) to set up a broader left-wing “popular-patriotic alliance” which pledged to come up with a single candidate. Geghamian was widely tipped for that role, especially after the HKK leader Vladimir Darpinian’s withdrawal from the campaign announced on Friday.
A senior member of the HZhK, Stepan Zakarian, said Demirchian hopes that more opposition candidates will withdraw from the race in his favor before Sunday’s official deadline for their doing so. But at least three of them -- Geghamian, Vazgen Manukian and Aram Karapetian -- ruled out such a possibility.
“I don’t want to disappoint hundreds of thousands of people in whom I have aroused hope and faith,” Geghamian said during a campaign trip to the central Kotayk province.
Manukian, for his part, again argued that the existence of three or four major opposition challengers will not make it easier for Kocharian to win the ballot. “If opposition candidates unite, their votes will not necessarily add up,” he told RFE/RL.
The opposition leaders were due to hold another, final meeting on the issue late in the evening.
Demirchian, meanwhile, campaigned in the northwestern Shirak province, promising local voters to ensure the rule of law and boost living standards. The area, still reeling from the 1988 earthquake, is portrayed by the Armenian authorities as a bastion of pro-Kocharian sentiment because of recent years’ progress in its reconstruction.
Still, scores of people attended Demirchian’s rallies in the provincial capital Gyumri and neighboring towns and villages. The crowd in Gyumri was approximately as large as the one that greeted Kocharian on Wednesday. Addressing the gathering, Demirchian accused Kocharian of using external assistance that has funded the bulk of construction work in the region for “propaganda purposes.”
“I lived a real life under his father,” said one local resident, Yervand Madoyan. “He comes from the same family and I believe that I and my children would again live like that [if Demirchian is elected president].”