By Karine Kalantarian
Samvel Babayan, the Yerevan-based former military leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, has unexpectedly bowed out of a potentially tense election showdown with a brother of Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian in a single-member constituency in southeastern Armenia.
Babayan and businessman Aleksandr Sarkisian have been the main candidates in the constituency encompassing the town of Goris and the surrounding area, setting the stage for one of the most exciting individual contests in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Sarkisian is strongly backed by the governing Republican Party (HHK), while Babayan’s Dashink (Alliance) party claims to be in opposition to the Armenian government.
In a written statement issued on Tuesday, Dashink said the once powerful general will withdraw his candidacy and will contest the May 12 elections only on the nationwide party list basis. It also endorsed another opposition candidate running for parliament from the Goris district. The candidate represents the opposition Zharangutyun party led by former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian.
Gnel Ghlechian, a member of Dashink’s ruling council, told RFE/RL that Babayan pulled out of the race because his party concluded that the election there can not be free and fair because of the HHK’s heavy reliance on its “administrative resources.” Ghlechian claimed that the three other opposition parties that are represented in the local election commissions have refused to cooperate with the Dashink leader in preventing possible vote irregularities. “In this situation, it is pointless to wage a political struggle in that district,” he said.
Ghlechian insisted that the decision was not the result of pressure exerted on Babayan by the government and Defense Minister Sarkisian in particular. “Dashink does not bow to government pressure,” he said.
Still, many commentators will point to the brief detention earlier this month of several Babayan aides by the National Security Service, supposedly on suspicion of illegal arms possession. The former commander of the Karabakh Armenian army was also reportedly summoned to the feared security agency for questioning.
The interrogations followed press reports that the Armenian authorities are considering declaring that Babayan not eligible to participate in the elections. Under Armenia’s constitution, only those Armenian citizens who have permanently resided in the country for the past five years can run for the National Assembly. Babayan moved to Yerevan from Karabakh in 2004.
The HHK announced earlier this week that Aleksandr Sarkisian’s election campaign will be managed and coordinated by Surik Khachatrian, a controversial regional governor who holds saw in the Goris area. The move suggested that Armenian defense minister, who leads the HHK, will go to great lengths to ensure his brother’s victory.
According to Samvel Harutiunian, the third candidate endorsed by Babayan, Aleksandr Sarkisian has recently visited Goris together with Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian. “They held meetings with the heads of all local communities and demanded that they make sure he gets 80-90 percent of the vote,” Harutiunian claimed on Monday. He said he is therefore bracing for a “brutal fight.”