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Opinion: Armenia braces itself for more “competitive”, even if ever so slightly, elections
01 February 2017

Ahead of parliamentary elections in Armenia, scheduled for April, a number of  re-aligments amongst the traditional political elite have emerged. Sos Avetisian reflects on developments in this op-ed for commonspace.eu

Ahead of April's parliamentary elections, the political landscape of Armenia appears increasingly fragmented.

Last week, Hovik Abrahamyan, who served as Prime Minster from 2014-2016, declared that he will be leaving the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), but will remain active in the political life of the country. This is the most serious defection of high-profile party member since the presidential elections of 2008.

Hovik Abrahamian is an oligarch that rose to power during Robert Kocharyan's presidency, and later was able to carve out a political stronghold within the ruling RPA in tandem with President Serzh Sargsyan. Abrahamyan lead the RPA campaign during the constitutional referendum in 2015. According to some political observers his organizational skills in vote-rigging were central for approval of the proposed constitutional changes.

It seems Abrahamyan was upset at being replaced as Prime Minister by Karen Karapetyan in September 2016. Since then Abrahamyan has been inactive in political life, and most likely his departure did not come as a surprise to the ruling circles of the party. Nevertheless, his break with the RPA does create a degree of intrigue, even if Abrahamyan's power outside the upper echelons of the political system should not be overestimated.

Furthermore, the ousting of Abrahamyan perhaps signals an agenda of rejuvenation of the Republican Party, whereby younger party-members such as Armen Ashotyan (currently the deputy-head of RPA) and Vigen Sargsyan (Defense Minster) are expected to play a more central role. At the same time, by getting rid of the "old guard" of the RPA, President Serzh Sargsyan is replacing them with more loyal and politically less ambitious men, thus further cementing his own power.

The "many-faced god" of Armenian opposition

The opposition parties in Armenia remain highly personalized. Three key points of oppositional consolidation are visible. The first one is formed around the wealthy oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan , who for a long time led the Prosperous Armenia Party, who returned to Armenian politics after being "banished" by President Serzh Sargsyan some years ago. Interestingly Sargsyan warned Abrahamian that beyond the RPA he has no real chances for political success. He also clearly mentioned that "he does not welcome the return of Gagik Tsarukyan" to Armenian politics. While the discourse is antagonistic, it is very unlikely that Tsarukyan re-entered into the political race without Sargsyan's consent.

It is likely Abrahamyan will join the PAP and be on its list for the forthcoming elections. The two have family connections since Abrahamyan's son is married to Tsarukyan's daughter. It is also likely that President Sargsyan has a degree of control over these developments. A further factor to keep in mind is that Ishkhan Zaqaryan, who is the head of Armenia's Control Chamber under the Presidential Office, and officially is currently on a two-month vacation, will be the head of PAP election campaign. This is not to suggest that it is through this channel that President Sargsyan's control is exercised, but to show that electoral rhetoric of "real competition and change" should be taken with pinch of salt. 

Another alliance that has chances to enter the parliament is formed around ex-Defense Minister Seryan Ohanyan and ex-Foreign Affairs Minister Vardan Oskanyan.  They do not have the kind of financial resources behind them that Tsarukyan has, but they compensate this with their political experience and by exploiting the prestige of their previous careers. At the same time, the baggage of serving in Robert Kocharyan's cabinet, and their involvement in the decision to violently disperse protesters on 1 March 2008, creates some questions regarding their legitimacy as leaders of the opposition.

The third pillar of opposition is formed by smaller parties with charismatic leaders. The "Bright Armenia" (Lusavor Hayastan), Civic Contract and Republic Party formed a coalition to participate in the parliamentary elections. The first two are led by young and charismatic MPs- Edmon Marukyan and Nikol Pashinyan respectively, and the last one by Aram Sargsyan. Aram Sargsyan's brother, Vazgen, was a central figure in Armenian politics, served as Defense Minister of Armenia from 1995-1999, and in 1999 he became Prime Minister after his coalition "Miasnutyun" acquired the majority of the seats in the parliament. On October 27th 1999 he was assassinated in the National Assembly of Armenia, which led to six-month long crisis in the government.  Aram Sargsyan hopes to cash in on the aura that still surrounds his brother's image.

While the above mentioned alliance enjoys some sympathy within the younger generation of Armenians, and has branded itself as an innovative and well-established entity, the chances of real success are not high. The local elections in October 2016 demonstrated that without serious preparation and fundraising they do not have the clout to challenge the more well-established forces

 Lastly, the Armenian National Congress will also participate in upcoming elections this time led again by Levon-Ter Petrosyan. It is remarkable that ANC has abandoned its position of primarily focusing on domestic politics of Armenia, instead revitalizing Ter-Petrosyan's earlier theses about the necessity to find a compromise with Azerbaijan and achieving peace with all neighbours.  This pacifist manifesto a year after the "April War" is considered suicidal for Armenian electoral purposes. Hence, the reason behind, perhaps, is to offer an alternative to current face of Armenian foreign policy, and open the way for an alliance with President Sargsyan, if latter decides to go for a compromise approach on Karabakh after the elections.

Conclusion

Thus far, it seems that all three opposition blocks will continue separately towards the April race, which will significantly serve RPA's attempt to re-invent itself.  The elections will certainly be more truly competitive if PAP joins forces with Vartan Oskanian and Seryan Ohanyan. The PAP's resources and patronage networks cultivated by Tsarukyan and Abrahamyan, coupled with the political experience of Oscanian and Ohanyan can create an opposition force that can truly challenge the incumbent ruling party. All four of them are however intimately linked to the second president of Armenia, Robert Kocharian, and the latter may himself enter the competition, if he deems the moment is ripe. This will pose a serious challenge to the RPA.

However, as for now, the fragmentation among the opposition in Armenia is only useful for RPA. There is speculation the RPA is interested in injecting a plethora of old and new faces into the election race, in order to demonstrate a high degree of competitiveness to the external eye. In this case, the prognosis of Armenian political expert Alexander Iskandaryan suggesting that RPA will be able to form a stable majority in parliament after the elections, and that the opposition is only competing among itself for a limited number of seats, may very well be vindicated.

Sos Avetisyan is an independent political analyst based in Yerevan. He contributed this op-ed for commonspace.eu.

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