By Karine Kalantarian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s leading opposition forces vowed Tuesday to close ranks around presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian and keep up pressure on President Robert Kocharian before next week’s showdown run-off. They reaffirmed plans to hold yet another unsanctioned anti-government rally on Wednesday.
“Our line is clear: to press the president of the republic to step down or take steps which we will officially demand tomorrow,” the leader of the opposition National Democratic Party (AZhK), Shavarsh Kocharian. “That first of all means putting an end to all the illegal arrests and punishing government officials involved in vote irregularities.”
The AZhK leader spoke to RFE/RL after a meeting of an umbrella structure coordinating activities of about two dozen opposition groups. The grouping, which failed to field a single candidate against the incumbent before the first round, has effectively turned into a pro-Demirchian electoral alliance.
However, representatives of the opposition National Unity party led by Artashes Geghamian were conspicuously absent from the meeting, underscoring the growing rift between the third-placed presidential candidate and virtually all other major opposition forces. Geghamian insists that the election was marred by fraud and should be re-run. He has declined to endorse Demirchian, urging the latter to boycott the March 5 run-off.
Demirchian, who is buoyed by his first-round strong showing, is widely expected to stay in the race even though his top aides said the final decision will be taken after the announcement of the final first-round results. They are now more concerned with preventing a repeat of serious irregularities reported during the first round.
Demirchian’s campaign manager, Grigor Harutiunian, said the candidate is ready for a televised debate with incumbent Kocharian but only if the latter agrees to answer tough questions about the 1999 parliament shootings and the reported irregularities.
The Kocharian campaign hopes that the debate would expose Demirchian’s lack of political experience to many Armenians. It is also trying to persuade the electorate in that a Demirchian win would pave the way for the return to power of the unpopular former President Levon Ter-Petrosian and his Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh).
The HHSh leaders dismissed the speculation on Monday. “Calm down, gentlemen. The HHSh is not returning to power,” said David Shahnazarian, a close Ter-Petrosian associate and a former national security minister. “The HHSh will be in opposition regardless of who becomes Armenian president.”
Still, Shahnazarian and other HHSh leaders, who are very critical of the current authorities, indicated that they would welcome Demirchian’s victory in the second round. The center-right party’s deputy chairman, Andranik Hovakimian, told RFE/RL that its territorial branches across the country have been instructed to try to ensure the freedom and fairness of the vote on March 5. “Armenia should have a legitimate president,” he argued.
Ter-Petrosian, for his part, declined a comment.