By Ruzann Stepanian and Emil Danielyan
Former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian indicated on Monday that he might still endorse fellow opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian while having his name on the ballot.
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), meanwhile, downplayed the high-profile defection to the Ter-Petrosian camp of two of its prominent parliamentarians
Baghdasarian and Ter-Petrosian, who are Sarkisian’s two main challengers, discussed the possibility of joining forces ahead of the February 19 vote but failed to reach agreement before Saturday’s legal deadline for candidates’ withdrawal from the race.
Baghdasarian insisted that they may still cut a pre-election deal as he met representatives of Armenia’s leading women’s organizations. “I don’t exclude that such alliances may come into existence, including before the first round [of voting,]” he said. “Having a name [on the ballot] is not an obstacle to that. A person may have his name on the ballot but still express his view.”
“A withdrawal [from the presidential race] might occur on February 15 or 16,” added the leader of the opposition Orinats Yerkir Party. He claimed that the withdrawal of Ter-Petrosian’s candidacy in his favor also remains a possibility.
The Armenian authorities appear to be worried about the possibility of an electoral alliance between the two opposition leaders. President Robert Kocharian held a rare news conference on Friday to advise Baghdasarian against dropping out of the race. Kocharian said the 40-year-old ex-speaker would lose “at least half of his electorate” if he were to throw his weight behind Ter-Petrosian.
“Robert Kocharian has no right to decide how 1.5 million people should vote,” Baghdasarian said, responding to the statement.
Meanwhile, Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign continued to gather momentum at the weekend, with tens of thousands of people attending a rally held by the former president in downtown Yerevan. It was the biggest pre-election rally held in Armenia so far.
“Today, you are facing a choice between two things,” Ter-Petrosian told the crowd. “One is a thieving and intimidating authority which is trampling our national dignity underfoot, the other is the alternative which we are offering you.”
Ter-Petrosian said he will end what he called an atmosphere of fear and ensure the rule of law in Armenia if elected president. “I governed a country where the citizen was not afraid of expressing his will,” he said. “I am coming to restore that country.”
“I am coming to ensure that you … are no longer afraid of the government, the policeman, the taxman, to ensure that everything is done by legal means, to give you back your freedom so that you can criticize me as much as possible,” he added, prompting “Levon! Levon!” chants.
Ter-Petrosian was publicly endorsed during the rally by an influential organization uniting veterans of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. The group called the Test of Spirit is led by Sasun Mikaelian and Hakob Hakobian, both of them members of the HHK’s faction in parliament.
“We stand by our commander-in-chief with whom we waged and won the freedom fight in Artsakh (Karabakh),” Mikaelian told the crowd. “We are loyal to him.”
Ter-Petrosian is also understood to enjoy the backing of some senior members of the Yerkrapah Union, Armenia’s largest veterans’ organization led by Deputy Defense Minister Manvel Grigorian. They too have close ties to the government and the ruling HHK. Ter-Petrosian was publicly endorsed by the Yerkrapah chapter in the northwestern Shirak region as he rallied thousands of people in the regional Gyumri on Sunday.
The HHK said on Monday that Mikaelian’s and Hakobian’s decision to back Ter-Petrosian is not a sign of serious cracks emerging in the government camp. “We are not worried about mass defections because our team is very strong, very stable, very powerful, and you will once again see that on February 19,” the party spokesman, Eduard Sharmazanov told the A1plus.am news service. “The behavior of one or two party members can not be attributed to the whole party.”
(Photolur photo: Ter-Petrosian supporters rally in Yerevan.)