By Shakeh Avoyan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian dismissed on Friday talk of growing rivalry between his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and a new party which is reputedly sponsored by President Robert Kocharian.
The Prosperous Armenia party of Gagik Tsarukian, a millionaire businessman close to Kocharian, now claims to be the country’s largest political group and intends to make a strong showing in the parliamentary elections due in May. Some politicians and commentators say it is increasingly regarded as a threat by the HHK, which is looking to retain its control of the National Assembly. But others believe that the objectives of the two groups are not mutually incompatible.
“There are attempts to artificially create such a problem,” said Markarian. “Such a problem doesn’t exist. Rivalry [between the HHK and Prosperous Armenia] doesn’t exist.”
Another, more influential HHK leader, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, claimed last July that Tsarukian is too inexperienced to pose a threat to his party. “Prosperous Armenia is not yet a party, to begin with,” Sarkisian told RFE/RL.
However, Tsarukian’s party seems to have since rapidly expanded and now boasts over 200,000 members across Armenia. Its recent large-scale distribution of “humanitarian aid” to rural residents drew serious concerns from opposition politicians and even some HHK leaders. They have accused the tycoon of buying his party’s way into the next parliament.
Kocharian dismissed such concerns on December 15, effectively defending Tsarukian’s “benevolent actions.” "There is demand in our society for a new political force that comes up with a very understandable slogan, ‘We think about the people,’" he said in televised remarks.
But Markarian indicated that he believes the Prosperous Armenia campaign will lose momentum in the run-up to the elections as “the people will acquaint themselves with new parties and their activities and compare them with older parties.” “Let them talk,” he said, commenting on the party’s electoral ambitions.
Meanwhile, the HHK-controlled parliament approved on Friday in the final reading a package of amendments to the electoral code which the Armenian government says will complicate fraud in the next elections. The Armenian opposition insists that their impact on the freedom and fairness of the polls will be marginal.
One of the changes is meant to address a recent Constitutional Court ruling that made it illegal for Armenian judges to hold one of the nine seats in various-level election commissions. Kocharian, the six parties represented in the current National Assembly and a group of non-partisan parliamentarians each appoint the other commission members.
The amended code stipulates that the vacant seats shall be occupied by members of court staffs to be chosen by the Court of Cassation. Opposition lawmakers said this provision is also unconstitutional, accusing the pro-Kocharian majority of breaching the court ruling.
The parliament also rejected opposition demands to allow the parliamentary parties to replace their representatives to election commissions at will. The opposition Artarutyun bloc and the National Unity Party claim that many of their commissioners are bribed or bullied by the authorities into turning a blind eye to vote irregularities. This argument was rejected by both the HHK and legal experts from the Council of Europe.
Another key amendment raised from 5 to 7 percent the minimum proportion of votes which an electoral bloc has to get in order to win parliament seats under the system of proportional representation. The vote threshold for parties contesting elections on their own remains 5 percent.