By Hrach Melkumian in Goris
Vazgen Manukian, a major opposition candidate, sought to dispel voter pessimism about the freedom and fairness of the upcoming presidential election at the start of his campaign in Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province on Tuesday.
Responding to local residents’ complaints that their votes did not make a difference in the past, Manukian argued that the authorities can no longer use the military to enforce desired election results.
“We all voted for you back in 1996, but you didn’t take care of your votes,” an elderly man in Shinuhayr, a village near the local town of Goris, told the leader of the opposition National Democratic Union (AZhM),
“I gathered the people and led them to demand justice. But when the authorities began shooting at the people, would it make sense to take on the tanks?” Manukian replied, recalling the government crackdown on the opposition in the wake of the September 1996 disputed presidential elections.
Manukian was the candidate of Armenia’s leading opposition forces at the time. Official figures showed that he was narrowly defeated by the then president, Levon Ter-Petrosian. However, the opposition and international observers refused to recognize their legitimacy, saying that the vote was marred by serious irregularities. The next presidential elections held in 1998 were also criticized by them.
Memories of the previous elections, as Manukian discovered in Syunik, still hold a powerful grip on voters’ consciousness. He was confronted with similar questions during a rally in Goris attended by several hundred people. “I think that things have changed [since 1996],” the AZhM leader told them. “There are no armed groups to protect Robert Kocharian. So if the people unite, it will be much easier to impose their will.”
Outlining his campaign platform to local voters, Manukian accentuated on the need to ensure the rule of law Armenia. “First of all, there has to be law and order in this country,” he said. “Without law and order there can be no economic development.”
Manukian also said that if elected president, he will be as efficient as he was the helm of the Armenian Defense Ministry in 1992-93, the period of sweeping Armenian military gains in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.