By Anna Saghabalian
Campaigning officially began on Monday for a parliamentary by-election in a constituency in central Armenia which has pitted two influential government factions against each other and has been largely ignored by the opposition.
With just over one month to go before the August 29 vote, two pro-establishment businessmen have emerged as the clear frontrunners. One of them, Artak Sargsian, has been nominated by the Orinats Yerkir Party, a member of the country’s governing coalition led by parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian.
Orinats Yerkir’s two coalition partners, the Republican and Dashnaktsutyun parties, have tacitly backed Sargsian candidacy. But he faces a formidable opponent in Arayik Hayrapetian, another Yerevan-based entrepreneur who is believed to enjoy the backing of Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian.
A third major candidate has been endorsed by the Hanrapetutyun party, a key member of the country’s largest opposition alliance, Artarutyun (Justice). However, Hanrapetutyun is likely to avoid campaigning for his election in earnest in line with the Armenian opposition’s continuing boycott of parliament sessions.
The race in the single-mandate constituency in the Kotayk region is thus shaping up as a showdown between Orinats Yerkir and Hovsepian. A figure close to President Robert Kocharian, Hovsepian reportedly has extensive business interests and has built an unofficial political base through an organization uniting prominent individuals born in his native Aparan region.
The parliament seat from the constituency became vacant in early June after its previous holder, Aram Harutiunian, was appointed minister for urban development -- one of the three ministerial posts reserved for Orinats Yerkir in the ruling cabinet.
The area’s biggest town, Yeghvard, already bears what has become a common feature of pre-election campaigning in much of Armenia: the repair of potholed roads financed by one or more candidates. Local people said workers who paved their streets last week had uniforms carrying the name of a Yerevan supermarket owned by Sargsian.
Officials in the latter’s campaign headquarters did not deny that he was behind the work. “He is doing good things like covering the roads with asphalt,” said one official who presented himself as a relative of the Orinats Yerkir candidate.
Relatives also abound in the rival camp. “First of all, Arayik is related to us,” said one Hayrapetian campaigner. “Secondly, I like his program more than other candidates’.”
Many Yeghvard residents polled on the street said they will take part in the by-election but had trouble naming the candidates or describing their platforms. “I know one candidate,” said an elderly man. “He’s Zohrab’s son, he’s a local. What was his last name?”
“We want a local to get elected. We had one deputy who never spoke. We want someone who would help us,” he added.
“Anyone who fixes our roads will get our votes,” said another man.
Many other Yeghvard residents seem to have greater demands but lower expectations, though. As one of them put it cynically, “Whoever is elected will not do anything good for the people. They all would protect their own interests.”