By Hovannes Shoghikian, Karine Kalantarian, Ruzanna Khachatrian, and Ruzanna Stepanian
The month-long campaigning for Armenia’s parliamentary elections officially drew to a close on Thursday, with the main contenders making final appeals to voters and getting ready for what promises to be a tense balloting.
The governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), the presumed election frontrunner, ended its campaign with a rally in central Yerevan attended by thousands of people. Many of them were civil servants, schoolteachers, other public sector employees, and students bused to the city’s Liberty Square for the occasion. As was the case with other HHK rallies, the event began with a concert by local pop stars.
The HHK leader, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, then delivered an uncharacteristically emotional speech. “Dear people of Yerevan, I am happy that after long and difficult years hope is again flying high in this square,” he said.
Sarkisian sounded satisfied with the results of the HHK’s election campaign, saying that his party is “stronger than ever before.” “I believe in providence,” he said. “The 15th anniversary of our independence, the 15 anniversary of our army, the 15th anniversary of our victory [marked this year,] and the [HHK’s] number 15 spot on the ballot.”
The Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) of Gagik Tsarukian, the HHK’s most likely partner in a would-be coalition government, spent the last day of the campaigning touring the town of Abovian and nearby villages. The area north of Yerevan is widely regarded as Tsarukian’s exclusive zone of political and economic influence. He continued to make election-related donations to local residents despite a law that bans election candidates from distributing any goods or services to the voters.
“We don’t buy votes. But Gagik Tsarukian is a generous man and has not come here empty-handed,” a BHK activist said, opening a campaign rally in Garni, a big local village. He pointed to a new bus parked nearby which will cater for local youths studying in Yerevan.
Addressing hundreds of villagers, Tsarukian described the gift as proof of his commitment to improving their plight. He urged them to vote for his party, saying that its promises of quick economic betterment are not unfounded. “I’m not telling fairy tales today to be ashamed of looking you in the eyes tomorrow,” he said.
Local residents welcomed the donation but used the opportunity to convey other grievances to the influential tycoon close to President Robert Kocharian. They complained in particular that they have running water for only a few hours a day. Ashot Vartanian, the Garni mayor affiliated with the BHK, the cash-strapped village administration can not afford to spend at least 5 million drams ($14,000) a year which he said is needed for ensuring 12-hour supplies of drinking water to more than a thousand local households.
“I’ll give you that five million, man,” replied Tsarukian. “Don’t worry about that.” He also instructed the mayor to address other complaints voiced by the locals.
Garni was until recently considered a stronghold of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), which is represented in Kocharian’s current cabinet and is keen to enhance that presence. Dashnaktsutyun held its final campaign rally in Yerevan’s Zeytun district on Thursday. Later in the day its leadership held a meeting with the party’s representatives to various-level election commissions and proxies. One of the Dashnaktsutyun leaders, Vahan Hovannisian, urged them on Wednesday to “stand firm” and resist any attempts to rig Saturday’s elections.
Armenia’s divided opposition camp also finalized its preparations for the vote. The People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), whose leader Stepan Demirchian was Kocharian’s main challenger in the 2003 presidential election, rallied about a thousand supporters in Yerevan. “We will keep fighting until power is returned to the people,” Demirchian said, warning the authorities against fresh vote rigging.
Attendance at the rally was a far cry from Demirchian’s 2003 campaign rallies that attracted tens of thousands people. His campaign meetings in other parts of the country were also poorly attended this time around, raising questions about its ability to win at least 5 percent of the vote needed for winning parliament seats under the system of proportional representation. Demirchian has dismissed talk of a steep decline in his and his party’s popularity ratings.
Analysts believe that Orinats Yerkir, another major opposition party led by former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, should have no problem retaining its presence in the National Assembly, having conducted a far more lively and dynamic campaign. Baghdasarian summed up its results at a news conference on Thursday. He also complained about what he called unequal campaigning opportunities that were put in place for the pro-government and opposition forces.
“Our election campaign has practically not been covered by a number of TV companies, whereas the airwaves were flooded with campaign ads of the Republican and Prosperous Armenia parties,” Baghdasarian said.
“If the elections are held properly we will welcome them. If the elections are bad, we will revolt and struggle for people’s rights,” he warned.
But Baghdasarian would not specify whether Orinats Yerkir is ready to join other, more radical opposition groups that are already gearing up for post-election protests. “If the Armenian elections are rigged, Orinats Yerkir and myself will be at the forefront of the struggle. Anyone can join us in struggling against injustice,” he said.
Another opposition heavyweight, Raffi Hovannisian, concluded the first-ever election campaign of his Zharangutyun (Heritage) party with an indoor meeting attended by hundreds of party activists and supporters. He again claimed that Heritage will win the elections.
The audience burst into “Yes” chants when asked by Hovannisian, “Are we the masters of our national heritage? Are we the masters of our republic?”