By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Opposition leader Raffi Hovannisian and his Zharangutyun (Heritage) party failed to decide on Thursday whom to support in Armenia’s upcoming presidential election, postponing a move that could have a major impact on its outcome.
The Zharangutyun leadership said after a closed-door meeting that it reached no consensus on the party’s electoral strategy that remains uncertain after Hovannisian was barred from standing in the February 19 election. In a written statement, it said it will make the “final decision” after holding negotiations with presidential candidates and ascertaining their “vision for Armenia” and campaign platforms.
“The Zharangutyun Council determined that the [smaller] Zharangutyun board should hold talks and consultations before the presidential elections and, once having carefully examined the merits, tenets, and platforms of the candidates, reach judgment on behalf of the party,” the statement said.
Zharangutyun is one of only two opposition parties represented in Armenia’s parliament owing to its relatively strong performance in the May legislative elections. Analysts believe that its endorsement of a particular candidate would boost the latter’s chances in the presidential race.
Hovannisian is unable to enter the fray himself because of not having been an Armenian citizen for the past ten years, something which is required by the country’s constitution. The Zharangutyun leadership, according to the statement, “expressed regret” at the Armenian authorities’ refusal to backdate the U.S.-born politician’s citizenship to the first year of Armenia’s independence.
Hovannisian, who had served as independent Armenia’s first foreign minister while being a U.S. national, maintains that he was unjustly and unlawfully denied Armenian citizenship by President Robert Kocharian and his predecessor, Levon Ter-Petrosian, in the 1990s. Ter-Petrosian is now emerging as the leading opposition presidential candidate and is keen to win over the Zharangutyun leader. The latter is also understood to be courted by the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun).
Hovannisian was quoted by the statement as telling his loyalists that although he considers his disqualification from the race illegal, he believes they have “no right to sit on the sidelines.” “We must stand alongside our citizens and, with the aim of ensuring for them the opportunity to make a free and meaningful choice,” he said.
Speaking to RFE/RL earlier in the day, Hovannisian indicated that he does not support any of the presidential contenders yet and is primarily concerned with the freedom and fairness of the February election. “I wish all presidential candidates well,” he said. “Let there be a fair, free and respectful struggle, and let the most deserving but not the most powerful or wealthiest candidate win.”
“Zharangutyun and myself are ready to work with any president elected in a free and fair vote. The political legitimacy [of the next president] will determine Armenia’s future,” he added.
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, the election favorite, told reporters on Wednesday that he regrets Hovannisian’s ineligibility for the contest. He said he would have liked to face the Zharangutyun leader, rather than more radical and outspoken opposition challengers like Ter-Petrosian.