By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Anna Saghabalian
Two prominent politicians on Thursday laid claim to the status of a “third force” in the Armenian presidential race, saying that they represent a viable alternative to the country’s current and former leaders.
“The third force has already been created,” declared Vahan Hovannisian, the presidential candidate of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a junior partner in the governing coalition.
Hovannisian complained that the election campaign has until now amounted to bitter recriminations traded by President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian on one side and former President Levon Ter-Petrosian on the other. “It is unfortunate that Armenia is entering the election period with two hostile poles,” he said. “A three-horse race will totally change the situation. It will expose the real force.”
Hovannisian insisted that a news conference that he and his party had a “more than real chance” to win the February 19 ballot. He at the same time hinted that Dashnaktsutyun will not leave government in the event of Sarkisian’s victory. “How can you not cooperate with a political force that has a majority in the National Assembly?” he said, referring to Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK).
In a bid to boost its electoral chances, Dashnaktsutyun has been trying to muster multi-partisan support for its presidential candidate. In particular, the nationalist party has reportedly approached two prominent opposition figures, Vazgen Manukian and Raffi Hovannisian. Manukian, who is highly critical of both Sarkisian and Ter-Petrosian, is understood to have refused to withdraw from the race in anyone’s favor.
The more popular Hovannisian, who was barred from contesting the election because he has not been an Armenian citizen for the past ten years, has yet to decide whom to endorse. A senior member of his Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, Vartan Khachatrian, sounded skeptical this week about Dashnaktsutyun’s chances of winning over the U.S.-born politician.
In that regard, Hovannisian denied a newspaper report that his party’s alliance talks with Zharangutyun have stalled. “The talks are not over, they are still going on,” he said.
Also casting himself as a “third force” was Artashes Geghamian, a once influential opposition leader whose National Unity Party (AMK) suffered a humiliating defeat in last May’s parliamentary elections. Still, he was far more critical of Ter-Petrosian and his allies than the current leadership, accusing the former president of plotting to provoke a civil war in Armenia during or after the elections.”
Geghamian alleged that Ter-Petrosian loyalists plan to trigger violent clashes in “at least 400” polling stations on voting day. “We will do everything to prevent events taking such a turn,” he told reporters.
Geghamian has faced a barrage of harsh criticism from newspapers sympathetic to Ter-Petrosian ever since publicly attacking the ex-president and significantly toning down his long-standing criticism of the Kocharian administration on November 27. Citing Geghamian’s recent confidential meetings with Kocharian and Sarkisian, those newspapers have accused the AMK leader of playing a part in what they see as a government smear campaign against Ter-Petrosian.
Geghamian went on television late Wednesday to accuse the former Armenian government of “plundering” the country and ordering political assassinations during the early 1990s. He also condemned Ter-Petrosian for urging the West to help ensure the freedom and fairness of the presidential election.
The lengthy tirade provoked an insulting response the next morning from a pro-Ter-Petrosian daily which compared the former Communist Party functionary to a prostitute.
Geghamian says that he is now ready to cooperate with the authorities for the sake of maintaining “political stability” in Armenia. He claimed on Thursday that the “upcoming elections will be much more fair the ones held in 2003 and before.”