By Karine Kalantarian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Opposition candidate Stepan Demirchian is making preparations for the March 5 second round of the Armenian presidential election, while not ruling out the possibility of boycotting it in protest against reported first-round irregularities.
Officials at Demirchian’s campaign headquarters told RFE/RL on Thursday that the leader of the People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK) will expand his campaign of anti-government street protests into other parts of the country.
An HZhK spokeswoman said he will hold campaign rallies in the second and third largest cities of Gyumri and Vanadzor this weekend. But she made it clear that Demirchian’s participation in the showdown run-off with incumbent President Robert Kocharian is not a forgone conclusion.
The HZhK and 12 other opposition parties supporting him refuse to recognize the official results of the February 19 first round which gave Kocharian 49.5 percent of the vote to Demirchian’s 28.2 percent. The opposition, which has held a series of anti-government rallies over the past week, claims that Kocharian did much worse and demands that the authorities punish those involved in the alleged vote rigging.
Still, Demirchian is widely expected to stay in the race. His campaign ads continue to be broadcast by state television under free air time guaranteed by the Armenian election law.
“I think he should go into the second round and win,” said Vazgen Manukian, another opposition candidate who now supports Demirchian. Manukian, who fared extremely poorly in the first round, dismissed some opposition arguments that the HZhK leader should quit the race because the run-off will also be marred by serious irregularities.
“This is the country we have. What else can we do?” he said in an interview with RFE/RL.
Manukian also urged Demirchian to present to voters a detailed plan of action for his would-be presidency. “He would have to create a government and a situation that is good for our people,” he said.
The veteran politician, who nearly became Armenia’s president in 1996, further said that he and his National Democratic Union (AZhM) party have not discussed any power-sharing agreements with Demirchian in the event of his victory. Opposition sources had told RFE/RL earlier that Demirchian finalized such an arrangement with his two closest allies, former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian and former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian. The coalition of opposition forces supporting Kocharian’s main challenger has since expanded dramatically.
The opposition alliance, buoyed by Kocharian’s worse-than-expected performance, is now trying to keep up pressure on the authorities by rallying tens of thousands of people. Kocharian accused them on Wednesday of destabilizing the political situation in Armenia and pledged tough measures to maintain “law and order.” Manukian admitted that the situation has grown “dangerous,” but laid the blame on the authorities.
“That danger stems from the fact that Robert Kocharian is trying to cling to power at any cost,” he said.