Opposition leader Nikol Pashinian pledged to mount a serious challenge against President Serzh Sarkisian as he presided at the weekend over the founding congress of his new party tipped to become one of Armenia’s main opposition forces.
The group called Civic Contract formalized its status as a political party about 18 months after being founded by Pashinian as a movement offering an alternative to both the Armenian government and the mainstream opposition. It mainly unites young civic activists who have previously had no partisan affiliations.
“We are not setting up yet another party,” Pashinian told some 200 delegates of the one-day congress held in Yerevan. “We are setting up a party that does not intend to be in opposition for long and expects to assume power in the Republic of Armenia in the foreseeable future by gaining a popular vote of confidence.”
The outspoken oppositionist attacked the current and former Armenian authorities, saying that systematic vote rigging and other abuses committed by them have dealt huge blows to “the people’s spine.”
Pashinian also made clear that the party’s primary objective is the next parliamentary elections due in May 2017. The vote could predetermine who will govern Armenia after Sarkisian completes his second and final presidential term in 2018.
Pashinian, who turned 40 on Monday, rose to prominence in the late 1990s as editor-in-chief of “Haykakan Zhamanak,” the country’s best-selling daily newspaper highly critical of successive governments in Yerevan. He played a major role in former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s 2007-2008 opposition movement that nearly scuttled a handover of power from outgoing President Robert Kocharian to Sarkisian.
Like dozens of other oppositionists, Pashinian went into hiding following a deadly suppression of Ter-Petrosian’s street protests held in the wake of a disputed February 2008 presidential election. He subsequently surrendered to law-enforcement bodies and spent about two years in prison on controversial charges.
Pashinian, who is popular with many opposition supporters for his tough anti-government rhetoric, fell out with Ter-Petrosian in 2012 before deciding to set up a political group of his own. He has since repeatedly criticized Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) and other established opposition parties.
In his latest speech, Pashinian said the Civic Contract leadership will not repeat their mistakes which he believes are the reason why opposition campaigns for regime change have not succeeded in Armenia. In particular, he said his party will strive to set up a nationwide network of branches so that it can deploy proxies at all 1,800 polling stations across Armenia on election days.
The Civic Contract congress did not adopt any programs or specify the party’s positions on foreign policy issues like the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or Armenia’s relations with Russia and the West. Pashinian said the party will do that ahead of the 2017 elections.
Pashinian also promised that unlike other opposition leaders he will not stifle internal dissent and impose his will on his loyalists. This why, he said, he will not become official head of Civic Contract.The delegates elected one of his close associates, Arayik Harutiunian, as party chairman.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) after the speech, the former journalist stressed the importance of bringing “new faces” into the Armenian political scene. Sasun Mikaelian, another prominent oppositionist and the sole middle-aged member of the Civic Contract board, agreed.
“Our hope is the youth,” Mikaelian said. “We are here to open the way to the future for young people.”