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By Ruzanna Khachatrian, Armen Zakarian and Karine Kalantarian
Campaigning officially started in Armenia on Monday for the May 25 parliamentary elections which will again pit President Robert Kocharian against his bitter political foes less than three months after his controversial reelection.

The Central Election Commission (CEC) on Sunday registered 21 political parties and blocs and about 500 individual candidates vying for 131 parliament seats. Most of those groups, though disparate, support Kocharian in one way or another and will be seeking to win a majority in the next Armenian parliament.

The biggest pro-presidential contender, the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), has already made it clear that it expects to make a strong showing in the polls. One of its leaders, Galust Sahakian, predicted on Monday that the Republicans will win more than the 33 seats they hold in the outgoing National Assembly -- something which would enable them to keep their dominant positions in the government.

Retaining control of the parliament will be vital for Kocharian who is facing an increasingly hostile opposition that refuses to recognize his victory in last month’s election criticized as undemocratic by international observers. His main challenger, Stepan Demirchian, now leads the Artarutyun (Justice) bloc, the largest opposition force.

Artarutyun leaders, among them prominent opposition figures like Aram Sarkisian, Vazgen Manukian and Aram Karapetian, view the elections as a new front in their ongoing campaign for Kocharian’s resignation. They say they will win the vote if it is free and fair. Artarutyun’s campaign manager, Grigor Harutiunian, told RFE/RL that the abundance of pro-presidential forces should make it easier for the opposition to prevent vote rigging.

“There are now conflicting interests in the government camp and we hope that the elections will be more democratic,” Harutiunian said, adding that the Demirchian-led alliance is already taking anti-fraud measures. He said Manukian’s National Democratic Union (AZhM), the only Artarutyun party to hold a seat in all electoral commissions, is now replacing many of its commissioners with “people who will fight to the end.”

Also in contention is another major opposition group, the National Unity party of Artashes Geghamian. He too has sounded confident of his electoral chances. Geghamian, however, is suspected by the Demirchian camp of secretly cooperating with Kocharian in the March 5 presidential run-off.

“They worked for Robert Kocharian during the second round,” Harutiunian claimed, adding that he no longer regards National Unity as an opposition party.

Geghamian shrugged off the charge. “Our ideas of being in opposition are markedly different,” he told RFE/RL, underscoring his deepening rift with Demirchian.

The freedom and fairness of the upcoming polls was also emphasized by leaders of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), another pro-Kocharian party represented in the government. Its leader, Vahan Hovannisian, told reporters that it will be “very difficult” for anyone to manipulate them.

He also downplayed the extent of his party’s differences with the HHK, denying in particular reports that some Dashnaktsutyun leaders made offensive remarks about the Republicans at a recent party meeting. According to Hovannisian, there was “only criticism, not defamatory statements, directed at various political forces.”

The opposition, meanwhile, already cried foul on Monday after several of its prominent members were denied registration by the CEC and its territorial divisions on the grounds that they submitted “false documents.” Among those candidates were at least members of the current parliament. One of them, Hayk Babukhanian, blamed the decisions on the Republicans, saying that they want to “clear the field” for their candidates running in single-mandate constituencies.

Babukhanian, whose Union for Constitutional Rights party is affiliated with Demirchian’s bloc, and the two other lawmakers, Aghasi Arshakian of National Unity and Vartan Mkrtchian of Artarutyun, said they will challenge their disqualification in court.

On Sunday the CEC reversed a similar decision taken by an electoral commission in Yerevan against another prominent oppositionist, Arshak Sadoyan.

The May 25 polls will be held concurrently with a referendum on a package of amendments to the Armenian constitution suggested by Kocharian. He says they would curtail his sweeping constitutional powers and strengthen the parliament. His political opponents claim the opposite, however.

The forthcoming vote will again be closely watched by the international community. The Council of Europe has already warned that a repeat of serious vote irregularities reported during the presidential ballot could endanger Armenia’s membership in the human rights organization.
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