Businessman Gagik Tsarukian, one of the main contenders in the Armenian parliamentary race, deplored the economic situation in the country but again avoided calling for regime change as he held his first campaign rally on Tuesday.
Tsarukian, who leads an alliance bearing his name, rallied supporters in Bert, a small town in Armenia’s northern Tavush province, three days after the official start of campaigning for the April 2 elections.
Naira Zohrabian, a senior member of the Tsarukian Alliance, campaigned in nearby villages on Monday, urging voters to “designate April 2 as day of regime change.”
By contrast, Tsarukian avoided any talk of unseating the current government. He said his supporters should simply vote for his bloc, instead of thinking about installing a new leadership in Yerevan.
The tycoon also promoted his bloc’s 15-point platform which would, among other things, exempt small and medium-sized businesses from all taxes, scrap a Western-backed pension reform and end a strict enforcement of traffic and parking rules.
“No matter who you vote for, I can assure you that unless those 15 points are put into practice, the economic crisis will deepen further and unemployment and emigration and poverty will increase,” he told the Bert rally.
“Nobody can say today that their life has improved since 2009,” he declared.
Tsarukian again declined to explicitly blame President Serzh Sarkisian or his government for socioeconomic hardship in the country. “The reason is we, the reason is laws and conditions. We need to offer our people better conditions,” he said vaguely.
Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the dominant force in his bloc, finished second in the last two parliamentary elections, capitalizing on the tycoon’s heavily advertised charitable activities which critics have long denounced as vote buying.
As was the case during his past campaign appearances, Tsarukian was mobbed by scores of blue-collar voters asking for material assistance, including through letters handed to him. One middle-aged man in Bert told him that he urgently needs 200,000 drams ($410) to have his home connected to natural gas supply.
“You approach our candidate and he’ll sort it out,” replied Tsarukian. “Hayk, this man must be connected to gas by tomorrow,” he told an aide moments later.
Tsarukian, 60, returned to the political arena in January almost two years after resigning as BHK chairman under strong government pressure. The move followed a visible improvement of his rapport with Sarkisian. Some Armenian commentators and opposition politicians have claimed that his comeback is part of a secret deal with Sarkisian. Senior BHK members have dismissed these claims, saying that their party remains in opposition to the government.
Sarkisian said later in January that he does “not welcome” Tsarukian’s decision to return to politics. But he did not explicitly criticize or warn one of Armenia’s richest men.