Political Tug-of-War in Armenia

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

The outcome of the February 18 presidential election is still in dispute. The founder and leader of the Heritage Party, Raffi Hovannisian, continues to challenge the election results. To dramatize his campaign, he has resorted to his traditional tactics, namely a hunger strike.

For a long time, he was not clear on why he had chosen that particular kind of protest, to what end or when he would end the hunger strike. But finally, during Holy Week, he made it clear that his hunger strike would end on Easter Sunday, when he would attend church services with his family. Therefore, as we go to press, Mr. Hovannisian has resumed his food intake to intensify his campaign.

His contention is that President Serge Sargisian’s reelection was flawed, therefore, he has to transfer power to Hovannisian, or rather to “the people.” He has equated himself with the people, which may be interpreted in two ways: either he is very humble to claim victory on behalf of the people or he is conceited enough to think he is the only candidate who can speak on behalf of the people.

Politics abhors a vacuum. When former president Levon Ter-Petrosian’s HAK coalition lost its position as a viable opposition force, all of the discontented groups rallied around Hovannisian.

As a populist politician, he is conducting a very flexible campaign, having carefully studied the underlying reasons which led to Ter-Petrosian’s failure. The former president had cobbled together a coalition of 18 discontented groups with different ideologies and interests. He had rallied those groups around some maximalist demands.

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The ultimate goal of HAK (Armenian National Congress) was to “dismantle” the “kleptocracy.” He never budged from his extremist position. Additionally, his subordinates used abrasive language, while he was continuing it in his professorial rhetoric. He has tolerated or even encouraged his supporters in the media to poison the political atmosphere to the point of no return. He did not allow any room for rapprochement or compromise with the authorities, who continued to ignore him, while undermining his coalition in an underhanded way.

Eventually HAK disintegrated and its die-hard disciplinarians were rewarded with six seats in the 131member parliament to become a negligible opposition faction.

On the other hand, Hovannisian has been conducting his campaign on a more civilized level, some ultimatums not withstanding. He also began with maximalist demands, asking the reelected president to show up at Liberty Square — where he has set up shop — and turn over the presidency to him.

He soon realized the satirical parameters to his demand and he toned down his rhetoric; actually, he took the time to show up at the presidential palace to have a very courteous exchange of ideas with Sargisian.

It looks like the president’s entourage has determined to kill the opposition leader with kindness. Any aggressive demand is met by the administration’s very tolerant approach.

As a shrewd politician, Hovannisian realizes the president’s patronizing approach to his demands are playing into the hands of the administration, especially in the eyes of the international political community, for whom his public discourse seems to be intended.

Epistolary demands are being exchanged between the two parties. The original demands of the Heritage leader — outright surrender of power — are being watered down. The demand to open the ballot boxes for a recount was presented after the deadline without legal due diligence for which Hovannisian has apologized.

His demand for early parliamentary elections in a new format was turned down. Also his demand to punish five regional governors was ignored.

He realized that his maximalist position has been eroding. Therefore, he has already come to a turning point — either power surrender or power sharing — and since the first alternative does not seem realistic, he is opting for the second one.

The administration is well disposed to power sharing, but not on the terms that the opposition has been demanding. It looks as if the political power play is entering into a period of horse-trading, which could wear down the parties and take the wind out of Hovannisian’s sails.

Throughout this game, Hovannisian is proving to be an effective and prudent tactician, with his sights set on the next presidential election, five years down the road.

In the meantime, upcoming Yerevan municipal elections will provide a real opportunity for Mr. Hovannisian to make his mark on the political scene, especially when five other parties will be clamoring for victory in those elections.

Should the Heritage Party achieve some impressive results, Hovannisian will stay a major player for the long haul.

Hovannisian empowered the young and educated masses. Even if he cannot achieve his goal in the immediate future, he will be credited with introducing a new political culture, which in time may yield quantitative results.

He is also mindful of what degree of power sharing he may achieve. Should he settle for some face-saving positions for himself and his party members in Armenia’s power structure, he will deny Armenia’s political system the benefit of credible opposition.

At this time, the tug-of-war is continuing, hopefully with some positive outcome for Armenia.