By Ruzanna Stepanian
A leading member of he Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) of businessman Gagik Tsarukian predicted Thursday that it will garner at least 370,000 votes in the upcoming parliamentary elections, which is almost certainly enough to win them by a landslide.
The minimum figure cited by Vartan Bostanjian, a member of the BHK’s governing board, equals the number of members the party claims to have, making it by far the largest political organization in the country.
Asked by RFE/RL whether all of those members will go to the polls and vote for the BHK on May 12, Bostanjian said, “I think so.” “In the event of free, fair and transparent elections, the figure should be even higher,” he added, arguing that not only BHK members but their friends and relatives will vote for Tsarukian’s party.
By comparison, the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), the official winner of the last parliamentary elections, won only 290,000 votes. That made up 23.7 percent of some 1.22 million Armenians who took part in the ballot, according to the Central Election Commission. The Armenian opposition and even some pro-government parties said at the time that both the number of the HHK votes and the official voter turnout of 51 percent are grossly inflated.
The BHK, which is widely regarded as President Robert Kocharian’s new power base, claims to have recruited hundreds of thousands of members across Armenia in the course of last year. It has clearly capitalized on Tsarukian’s populist appeal and large-scale “benevolent” actions which many established parties consider a wholesale vote-buying.
Parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, who is affiliated with the HHK, openly challenged the credibility of the BHK’s membership claims last week. “If this is the case, then all parties must altogether disband themselves before the elections,” Torosian told reporters. “Because if we add to the 370,000 [members] a certain number of other voters, who are relatives of BHK members, we’ll get a huge figure.”
“In my view, no Armenian party can poll that many votes, unless, of course, Armenia one day again becomes a Communist country,” he said.
Speaking at a news conference, Bostanjian refused to comment on Torosian’s remarks. He also denied media allegations that many Armenians are being forced or paid to join the Kocharian-connected tycoon’s party.
“We have not used forcible or any other illicit methods,” said Bostanjian. “People themselves ask to join the party. We are a proud party that does not want artificial votes.”
Although many observers consider the BHK and the HHK the frontrunners in the race, it is not clear just how popular Tsarukian’s party is. Credible opinion polls are still a rarity in Armenia. Opposition leaders fear that the BHK’s spectacular membership claims will be used for legitimizing possible vote rigging.
Bostanjian, who is a senior economics professor at Yerevan State University, further dismissed speculation that Tsarukian evades taxes and gets away with that owing to his close ties with Kocharian. “I am convinced that he pays taxes [in full,]” he said. “Relevant authorities have not brought any [tax evasion] cases against the leader of our party. Isn’t that sufficient proof [of his innocence?]”
Despite Tsarukian’s reputation as a Armenia’s wealthiest “oligarch,” the amount of taxes paid by his businesses is quite modest. The largest of those businesses, a chain of liquefied and compressed gas stations, was only 84th in the latest rankings of the country’s top corporate taxpayers compiled by the State Tax Service (STS). The company, Multi-Leon, paid only about 500 million drams ($1.4 million) in various taxes last year.
(Photolur photo: Tsarukian, left, presides over a February 15 congress of the BHK.)