Official campaigning started on Monday for Armenia’s presidential election, with President Serzh Sarkisian and his two main opposition challengers holding their first rallies.
Sarkisian rallied hundreds of supporters in Yerevan’s northern Avan district while former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian and former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian pulled smaller crowds elsewhere. Both Hovannisian and Bagratian sought to position themselves as the incumbent president’s main rivals.
Hovannisian kicked off his campaign with a rally in central Yerevan attended by over a hundred people, most of them members or supporters of his opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party. “We are committed to returning power to the people of Armenia,” he told the crowd wearing orange scarves.
In his speech, Hovannisian pledged to create 180,000 new jobs, cut taxes, increase key government expenditures and raise pensions by 50 percent in case of his victory in the February 18 election. He also reaffirmed the main tenets of his and his party’s foreign policy agenda. In particular, he again pledged to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state.
The U.S.-born politician walked to another square in the city center after the rally, greeting passersby and shaking their hands in the process. Groups of Zharangutyun activists headed to other parts of the Armenian capital to campaign for their leader in the street.
Bagratian, meanwhile, held his first gathering in Verin Artashat, a village, about 30 kilometers south Yerevan. He sounded supremely confident of his election chances at a meeting with local residents. He promised to ensure, if elected, much greater government assistance to agriculture.
“I will intensify [my campaign] like a snowball throughout the country,” Bagratian said. “I will do everything to get this country back on its feet.”
Bagratian also sought to lift opposition supporters’ spirits, insisting that President Sarkisian can be defeated despite being widely regarded as the election favorite. “Do not think that the [opposition] movement had a better start in 2008. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a good end,” he said of the dramatic presidential bid by Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition candidate in the last election.
Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) bloc decided not to nominate or endorse any presidential candidates this time around, saying that changing Armenia’s government through elections is not possible because of chronic vote rigging.
Bagratian, who is a senior member of the HAK, defied the bloc’s leadership by deciding to run for president on his own. He defended that move at the Verin Artashat rally.