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By Astghik Bedevian
Opposition leader Raffi Hovannisian indicated over the weekend that he and his Zharangutyun (Heritage) party will not endorse any of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s four main election challengers before the first round of voting slated for February 19.

In a statement issued on Saturday, the party’s governing board said it will decide whom to support “later on” if at least one of them fails to drop out of the presidential race in favor of another opposition candidate. It said none of the four candidates, among them former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, stands a chance of defeating Sarkisian on his own.

“If participation in the presidential race is an end in itself, rather than a chance to win for those political forces, maybe we should wait for the [run-up to the] second round and see who the public supports the most,” the Zharangutyun spokesman, Hovsep Khurshudian, told RFE/RL. “We will naturally support that force.”

“There has to be a consolidation of forces. The mistakes made during the parliamentary elections must not be repeated,” Khurshudian said, referring to the Armenian opposition’s failure to set up major alliances in the run-up to the May 2007 vote. The Zharangutyun statement went further, saying that “appropriate lessons have not been learned” by the opposition.

Hovannisian himself was accused by some opposition politicians at the time of scuttling the formation of one such alliance that would have comprised Zharangutyun, two pro-Ter-Petrosian parties and the National Democratic Union (AZhM) of Vazgen Manukian, another presidential candidate. Hovannisian and his allies insist, however, that they were not to blame for the last-minute collapse of talks between those opposition groups.

Zharangutyun is one of only two opposition parties represented in Armenia’s parliament, putting its popular leader, who is not eligible to run for president, in a position to influence the outcome of the upcoming election. Ter-Petrosian and Vahan Hovannisian (no relation to Raffi), the candidate of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), have been particularly active in courting the U.S.-born politician.

Hovannisian said last month that his choice will depend on candidates’ answers to his 22 written questions that challenged them to not only elaborate on their campaign platforms but also to list their “main merits and shortcomings” and disclose their assets. The presidential hopefuls were also told to specify if they had ever jailed innocent people, benefited from vote rigging or committed other “deeds punishable by criminal law.”

The Zharangutyun statement complained that “in essence” none of them has filled out the highly unusual questionnaire. It said Hovannisian only received a “letter of courtesy” from Ter-Petrosian and “general reaction” from another opposition contender, Artur Baghdasarian.

Reports in the Armenian press have said that some members of the Zharangutyun board have been pressing Hovannisian, who returned to Yerevan last week after spending nearly a month in the United States, to throw his weight behind Ter-Petrosian. At least three of Zharangutyun’s seven parliament deputies are known to support the ex-president’s candidacy.

“I wouldn’t say that those reports are wide of the mark,” said Khurshudian. “Some sections of the board and the party as a whole do gravitate towards the candidate mentioned by you. But there are also quite serious sections of the party who support other opposition candidates.”

As a parliamentary force, Zharangutyun is entitled to controlling one of the eight seats in each of about 2,000 various-level commissions that will be conducting the February 19 election. According to Khurshudian, only about 1,000 party members and supporters are available to sit on those commissions. He said Zharangutyun will therefore ask other opposition parties to fill the remaining vacancies with experienced activists.

(Photolur photo)
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