By Armen Zakarian, Karine Kalantarian and Hrach Melkumian
A coalition of Armenia’s leading opposition parties stood Thursday on the brink of a major split after three of its members announced the creation of a separate electoral alliance, signaling their support for Artashes Geghamian’s bid for the presidency. The move coincided with the official start of the nomination of presidential candidates.
Geghamian’s National Accord party, the Communists and the Socialist Armenia bloc said their “popular-patriotic alliance” will contest next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections with common candidates and platform. The three left-wing and staunchly pro-Russian groups thus distanced themselves from other opposition forces making up the loose 16-party group which was formed last August with the stated aimed of defeating President Robert Kocharian in the February 19 elections.
The troika’s partners said they were not informed of the development beforehand, but hope that the diverse opposition coalition will continue its existence. “They probably kept their decision under wraps so that it has a greater effect,” said Albert Bazeyan, a leader of the Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party.
“This positive step must not lead to a split [inside the opposition],” said Shavarsh Kocharian of the National Democratic Party, adding that he still hopes that the opposition will act with a single presidential candidate.
However, most observers believe that the formation of the three-party bloc heralded the widely anticipated start of the 16-party coalition’s disintegration. The news was personally announced by Geghamian at a pre-election convention of Socialist Armenia. This fact suggests that he is the troika’s most likely presidential nominee.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Geghamian did not rule out such a possibility. He at the same time said that it would be “premature” to speak of the collapse of the so-called “Union of 16.” Geghamian has tried, unsuccessfully, to win its members’ endorsement of his presidential ambitions. His candidacy is opposed by opposition heavyweights like Hanrapetutyun, the National Democratic Union (AZhM) and the People’s Party (HZhK).
HZhK activists believe that their leader, Stepan Demirchian, is more popular than Geghamian and should therefore contest the polls. The AZhM’s Vazgen Manukian said that he too will file for registration with the Central Election Commission (CEC).
The CEC, meanwhile, began on Thursday accepting nominations of presidential candidates by political parties and individual support groups. The deadline for the nominations is December 6. Hopefuls must then collect and submit at least 35,000 supporting signatures by December 31.
Sources told RFE/RL on Thursday that an “initiative group” in support of President Robert Kocharian’s reelection has already been formed and will soon start collecting signatures. It is not yet clear who will head Kocharian’s campaign headquarters though.
His predecessor and potentially strong challenger, Levon Ter-Petrosian is still considering whether or not to join the race. Ter-Petrosian is expected to make a final decision before the pre-election congress of his Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) scheduled for November 28.
Earlier this week, the Yerevan-based ambassadors of the leading Western powers urged the Armenian authorities to take urgent legislative and administrative measures to ensure the freedom and fairness of the 2003 elections. U.S. Ambassador John Ordway told reporters on Thursday that Washington would welcome any legitimate winner of the February vote.
“We do not support or oppose any particular candidate,” Ordway said. “But what we do believe is that there be an electoral process that is fair and transparent.”