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Bid to Defeat Kocharian Unconvincing

Move by Armenian parties to choose a single candidate to fight Robert Kocharian in forthcoming elections expected to falter.
By Peter Magdashian

A bid by a group of opposition parties to rally together in an effort to defeat Armenian leader Robert Kocharian in presidential elections next February is unlikely to succeed, analysts say.


The 16 opposition groups making up the alliance said in a joint statement at its launch last week that they had decided to act because Kocharian's "criminal policies" were resulting in a deepening crisis. "We believe a change of power is vitally necessary for our people and country," the coalition said.


Members of the politically diverse alliance - who plan to come up with a joint candidate capable of defeating Kocharian in the elections - are confident of holding together, despite attempts by the government to divide the opposition.


"The current leadership of the country is doing everything to create splits in the ranks of the opposition, to initiate useless and meaningless discussions and everything to prolong the political life of Robert Kocharian. So there has to be a level of agreement and coordination in our ranks, which will not allow any deviation from the course we have set," Artashes Gegamian, former mayor of Yerevan and leader of the National Unity party, one of the alliance members, told IWPR.


The most difficult goal the opposition leaders have set themselves is to choose a single candidate to face Kocharian next February 19. The 16 parties have not yet determined how they will do this and Gegamian said only that it would be done by consensus and that "a joint candidate will appear by himself".


The coalition has five potential leaders. Two of them are relatives of the two prominent Armenian leaders murdered in parliament in October 1999: Stepan Demirchian, son of the late Karen Demirchian, who was Communist Party boss in Armenia in the 1970s and 80s and speaker of parliament when he died; and Aram Sarkisian, younger brother of Vazgen Sarkisian, the powerful defence minister and prime minister.


They have a relatively good chance to pick up votes, but both rely almost exclusively on the charisma of their slain relatives.


The other three contenders are Gegamian, leader of the Constitutional Law party, the centrist politician Grant Khachatrian, and another veteran of the independence period, Vazgen Manukian. It is widely believed in Armenia that Manukian was actually elected president in 1996 ahead of serving leader Levon Ter-Petrosian, but was thwarted by voting irregularities.


Many observers believe that the search for a common leader will break the alliance. Agasi Yenokian, director of the Armenian Centre for Politological and International Research, said, "There are more ambitions in this bloc than there are parties."


The new coalition has also not yet drawn up a programme. It has not for instance expressed a clear view on the resolution of the Nagorny Karabakh issue, which remains the most important long-term problem for Armenia.


The only opposition group to have formulated a clear policy over Karabakh is the former ruling party, the Armenian National Movement, which is not part of the new alliance. One of the ANM leaders, David Shakhnazarian, publicly advocates compromise over the enclave and tirelessly repeats the message that Armenia's current foreign policy is disastrous, leading the country into a dead end.


The ANM remains unpopular in Armenia, however, because of the years of hardship the country suffered when it was in power. And although the opposition coalition has disassociated itself from the ANM and former president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, that has not stopped others accusing it of having their support.


"I'd like to warn the honest people who I'm sure are in this bloc… that the shadow of the ANM is hanging above (it)," said Vahan Hovanisian, leader of Armenia's oldest nationalist party Dashnaktsutiun and chairman of the parliamentary commission on national security.


"Besides I have serious doubts that the leaders of the bloc will not rush to pick up the scraps the authorities toss to them. And finally, does this motley crew really have any coherent idea on for example how they see the future of Armenia?"


Hovanisian's party, formerly a loyal supporter of Kocharian, has somewhat distanced itself from him recently. That means the only party that is giving him strong support is now the other veteran Armenian organisation, Ramkavar-Azatakan, which has a liberal ideology and a strong influence in the Diaspora.


Kocharian does not have his own party. His appeal to the voters will be based on his record and chiefly the claim that Armenia is experiencing an economic revival and unemployment is going down.


Tigran Torosian, deputy speaker of parliament, scornfully accused the opposition of trying "artificially" to increase tensions in Armenia, when the economic situation was improving. "But the opposition will not succeed in turning the country from the path of measured growth," he said.


The president's biggest advantage is that of any incumbent: favourable coverage from the state media and the support of the political elite.


If the opposition grouping can find a candidate, its next hurdle will be overcoming these built-in disadvantages - as well as a strong public distrust of all politicians.


"What difference does it make, which member of the opposition becomes president, if nothing will change because of this as a result?" said Svetlana Aslanian, a piano teacher in a Yerevan music school. "They are all trying to solve their own personal problems and satisfy their ambitions. I have a feeling that none of the candidates cares about the future of the state."


Some opposition politicians are upbeat that they can win through. "I am very well informed on the hopes of the Armenian people, I know their problems and how they live," said opposition deputy Amayak Ohanesian. "And because of that I am sure that the current authorities won't be re-elected, it's impossible."


Others are less sanguine. "However much we talk about elections, the need to change the regime and so on, deep down we all know and we're reconciled to the fact that Kocharian will remain president," said opposition-leaning deputy Shavarsh Kocharian, who is no relation to the Armenian leader.


Peter Magdashian is IWPR's Armenia coordinator.


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