Raffi Hovannisian, the leader of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, went on hunger strike on Tuesday to demand that Armenia’s leadership hold fresh presidential and parliamentary elections that are also sought by another major opposition group.
Hovannisian announced the “freedom fast” in a speech at a Zharangutyun conference. He said he will indefinitely refuse food and stage an around-the-clock sit-in in Yerevan’s Liberty Square, the scene of massive antigovernment demonstrations held by another opposition leader, Levon Ter-Petrosian, following the disputed February 2008 presidential election.
Hovannisian could be seen seated on a bench in the square beside an Armenian national flag later in the day. Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service, he urged President Serzh Sarkisian to hold Armenia’s “first free and fair elections since 1995.”
“I’m not begging, asking or demanding,” he said. “But I expect that in this emergency situation the current authorities will come down and give back the Armenian people their votes and their voice. And I expect the authorities to expedite an emergency solution.
“At the same time I hope that the Armenian society will become the master of its own country and will not wait for anyone to deliver its rights and freedoms on a plate. They have to be won.”
The extraordinary hunger strike comes two weeks after Hovannisian and four other parliament deputies representing Zharangutyun walked out of Armenia’s National Assembly, accusing Sarkisian of seeking to illegally prolong his rule. The opposition party made clear afterwards that it will not permanently boycott parliament sessions or relinquish its parliament seats.
The holding of snap national elections is also the key demand of Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK), a larger and more radical opposition force. The HAK began a new campaign of antigovernment rallies last month, threatening to topple Sarkisian if he continues to oppose fresh polls.
Hovannisian, who served as Armenia’s first foreign minister in 1992, made a surprise appearance at the HAK’s most recent rally held in Yerevan on March 1. But he did not attempt to speak at the protest or join HAK leaders on the podium.
Hovannisian and his party supported Ter-Petrosian during the 2008 presidential race and the ensuing crackdown on the ex-president’s opposition movement. However, relations between Zharangutyun and the HAK have grown strained since 2009.