By Ruzanna Khachatrian
In an unexpected setback for President Robert Kocharian and his governing coalition, the National Assembly failed on Wednesday to appoint one of his longtime legal advisers as Armenia’s new human rights ombudsman in place of a prominent government critic.
Armen Harutiunian received the backing of 69 out of the 131 parliament deputies, just ten votes short of the three-fifths majority required by the country’s recently amended constitution. Ruben Torosian, the rival candidate put forward by the opposition minority, got 25 votes.
The results of the secret ballot took leaders of the pro-Kocharian majority and Harutiunian by surprise. The latter promptly left the parliament building moments before their announcement.
“I wouldn’t say he was defeated as he garnered quite a lot of votes,” said Galust Sahakian, the leader of the largest parliament faction representing Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK).
“Some of our deputies [from the majority] were absent today,” argued Samvel Balasanian, the parliamentary leader of another governing party, Orinats Yerkir.
But other lawmakers suggested privately that the parliament’s failure to install Harutiunian as ombudsman was a gesture defiance on the part of some of their pro-establishment colleagues. His candidacy was officially endorsed by the HHK, Orinats Yerkir, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the People’s Deputy group of independents. Together they control about 90 parliament seats.
“If there are those who want to show the president and the coalition something, they must also express themselves during open votes so that there is clarity in the political field,” deputy speaker Vahan Hovannisian told reporters.
Opposition deputies, for their part, claimed that the vote exposed persisting differences between the coalition parties that pledged this week to continue to work together until next year’s parliamentary election. “Perhaps there are forces who wanted to show that the governing coalition can not act in a united front even after its latest statement,” said Victor Dallakian of the Artarutyun bloc.
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian was on hand to assure reporters that he is not behind those forces. “Why do you attribute everything to me?” Sarkisian said, dismissing as “silly” a conspiracy theory about his role in the fiasco.
Markarian and parliament majority leaders were meeting later in the day to decide on their next steps. They said before the meeting that they will likely again nominate Harutiunian, who has advised Kocharian on constitutional reform and runs a state-run school of public administration, for the job.
The vote came after two days of heated parliament debates that saw angry accusations traded by deputies representing the two rival camps. Addressing the parliament on Monday, Harutiunian indicated that he would be far less confrontational in his dealings with the government than the former ombudsperson Larisa Alaverdian was until her resignation last month. Alaverdian has repeatedly criticized the Armenian authorities’ human rights record.
(Photolur photo: Deputies lining to cast their ballots on Wedneday.)