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Republicans Tighten Grip On Government As Rivals Ignore Local Polls

By Emil Danielyan

The Republican Party (HHK) of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian is quietly solidifying its status as Armenia's most powerful political organization as it appears headed to another landslide victory in Sunday's local elections.

Capitalizing on a striking lack of interest in the polls shown by its opponents, the party hopes to widen its control of many local governments and cement its positions in the country's leadership ahead of the more important presidential and parliamentary elections early next year. President Robert Kocharian, who hoped to offset the HHK influence by building a more diverse governing coalition, could thus grow more reliant on the Republicans in his quest for a second term in office.

Samvel Nikoyan, the HHK campaign manager, is a busy man these days, coordinating last-minute efforts by his party activists to win top executive positions in some 215 cities and villages across the country. Even more Republicans are vying for seats in local legislatures. In
addition, Markarian's party has endorsed scores of other pro-government candidates not affiliated with it.

"The chances of our candidates are pretty good because we have prepared for these elections very seriously," Nikoyan says confidently. "I believe that we will soon control more [local governments] than we did after the previous 1999 elections."

The Republicans and their allies won control over 340 municipal and rural communities as a result of the October 1999 elections. The polls were held just days before their charismatic leader, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, was assassinated together with seven other officials in a terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament. The once tiny nationalist party, which landed
in government after being taken over by Sarkisian in late 1998, has retained much of its clout despite a lack of popularity and the strengthening of Kocharian's positions.

Other political parties appear now incapable of challenging the HHK hegemony. At least none of them is preparing for Sunday's elections in earnest -- a fact which highlights the weakness of Armenian parties and seriously complicates the country's democratization. They simply do not view control of local administrations as a potential launching pad for seizing power in Yerevan, preferring instead to concentrate on national elections.

"If you have a strong base in local self-government bodies, it is much easier to make a strong showing in the following national elections," says Nikoyan. "Frankly, I am surprised that many parties that are already preparing for the [February] presidential elections are not particularly active now."

Both pro-presidential and opposition groups argue that they lack the muscle to defeat Republican and non-partisan members of the "power class" at the local level. "In these elections, the opposition can not compete with those candidates who are campaigning with substantial financial resources and government levers," says Albert Bazeyan, chairman of the opposition Hanrapetutyun party.

The opposition indifference to the upcoming polls reflects the dominant mood among ordinary Armenians. Only 25 percent of them cast their ballots in the 1999 elections judged "free and fair" by the Council of Europe. The voter turnout will hardly be much higher this time around. Many oppositionists allege that the public apathy favors pro-government candidates who, according to them, can buy a small but sufficient number of votes.

Besides, they say, Armenia's government system is highly centralized and gives few powers to local authorities. Indeed, the country's constitution empowers the prime minister to sack locally elected community chiefs upon the recommendations of government-appointed governors of the larger provinces. The latter act as representatives of the central government and are responsible for implementing its policy.

The Yerevan government also controls all taxation, although it must ransfer taxes on land and property, fixed state tariffs, and 15 percent of all income and profit taxes collected in a particular community directly to its budget.

The local elections, which will be held in more than two thirds of 930 Armenian "hamaynkner" (communities), have not been high on the agenda of the recently created coalition of 16 opposition parties that want to join forces to unseat Kocharian. The heavyweights like Hanrapetutyun have fielded several dozen candidates each. Most of them are running in rural communities, and virtually no Armenian city or town is likely to fall under opposition control.

Media attention is largely focused on Yerevan's central Kentron district, the only major opposition-controlled area in Armenia. Its incumbent head, Ararat Zurabian of the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), is facing a serious challenge from an obscure businessman tacitly supported by the HHK.

Another wealthy candidate, Levon Harutiunian, may well defeat the Republican-backed head of the city's Arabkir district, Felix Yayloyan. Harutiunian, who heads a major department at the Yerevan municipality, is conducting an expensive campaign and has already been accused by his opponents of vote buying. The Arabkir race mirrors campaigning in many other communities, with wealthy apolitical candidates, not the opposition, acting as the main HHK rivals.

Five of the twelve Yerevan districts are already run by HHK members who were elected in separate by-elections held earlier this year.

The Republicans are particularly keen to oust Yervand Aghvanian, the incumbent mayor of Echmiadzin who last month subjected Prime Minister Markarian to bitter criticism in front of Kocharian and several thousand local government officials. Some Markarian allies and independent commentators suspect that the strongly-worded attack, launched at a conference of the semi-official Union of Communities of Armenia, was orchestrated by the presidential administration and aimed to discredit the government.

And although Kocharian aides have denied the speculation, the president is widely believed to be trying to prop up other governing factions vis-à-vis the Republicans, fearing they might eventually threaten his hold on power. But the expected outcome of the local elections could force him to rely on Markarian's party even more heavily. Despite his overwhelming control of the military and security apparatus, Kocharian needs the backing of a well organized network of local governments to ensure his smooth reelection in February. This could, in turn, diminish the significance of other pro-presidential forces in his eyes.

No wonder that one of them, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), is jealously reacting to the growing HHK influence. One of its leaders, Vahan Hovannisian, warned this week that the Republicans should not claim to be the number one governing party in Armenia. "Given the fact that they do not have an absolute or even relative majority in the
parliament, their ambitions, which are manifesting themselves in the run-up to these elections, are a bit exaggerated," Hovannisian told RFE/RL.

Dashnaktsutyun is represented in Markarian's cabinet with two ministers and has one of the largest factions in the parliament. However, it controls no city municipal community and has fielded only three mayoral candidates.

So far there has been little cooperation among the HHK, Dashnaktsutyun and other major factions interested in Kocharian's reelection. Sunday's elections may only deepen cracks inside the presidential camp. Especially if they are marred with violence or allegations of vote rigging.