By Karine Kalantarian and Gayane Danielian in Gegharkunik
Stepan Demirchian, a leading opposition candidate, received a hero’s welcome from jubilant crowds on Friday as he continued his presidential campaign in the mainly rural areas of eastern Armenia. Two other opposition contenders campaigning in the same region encountered less enthusiasm.
Demirchian's tight schedule of meetings in the Gegharkunik province was disrupted by an intense outpouring of popular sympathy. Accompanied by a large group of other opposition leaders, he was forced to visit additional villages not included in it after their residents carrying his portraits blocked the main local highway.
Like elsewhere in Armenia, they slaughtered rams and bulls in honor of a man whom they primarily regard as the son of Karen Demirchian, the assassinated parliament speaker and Soviet Armenia’s Communist boss in 1974-1988. Braving a cold weather, scores of villagers gathered to welcome the candidate several hours before his arrival.
“We will be celebrating his victory on February 20,” said one woman.
About two dozen men escorted Demirchian’s motorcade on horseback from the village of Karchaghbyur, the first leg of the trip, to the provincial town of Vartenis. Demirchian then had to make brief stopovers in seven nearby villages. As a result, he arrived in another major destination, Martuni, four hours later than was planned.
Vartenis and Martuni were also visited by two other major opposition candidates, Vazgen Manukian and Aram Karapetian. Both men pulled smaller crowds and even had to cancel rallies in some villages which were about to meet Demirchian.
Speaking in Martuni, Manukian stressed that the main opposition candidates, though united in their opposition to President Robert Kocharian, are “different from each other” and urged voters to look into their platforms in an apparent bid to play down Demirchian’s family factor.
Demirchian was for the first time accompanied by Raffi Hovannisian, another popular opposition politician who endorsed him after being barred from contesting the polls. Hovannisian too received a warm welcome. “We want to build a homeland where every citizen, not just Mr. Demirchian, is a king,” he declared at a rally in Martuni. “The time has come for a new government.”
The Demirchian campaign got a further boost on Friday when another presidential hopeful, Aram Sarkisian of the small Democratic Party, announced that he is dropping out of the race in favor of the leader of the People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK). “We will do everything so that Stepan Demirchian wins in the first round,” he told reporters in Yerevan. “His popularity does open such a possibility.”
Sarkisian’s announced his resignation after the February 9 deadline for the candidates’ registration with the Central Election Commission, which means that his name will not be removed from ballots. He claimed that his alliance talks with Demirchian “dragged on for merely technical reasons.” He said his supporters will, nonetheless, vote for the HZhK leader.