President Serzh Sarkisian did not force Gagik Tsarukian, his most popular potential rival, to avoid challenging him in the upcoming presidential election, his ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) insisted on Thursday.
“I am sure that President Sarkisian never resorted to pressure,” HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“Serzh Sarkisian is a prudent and broad-minded politician espousing democratic values. Serzh Sarkisian has never issued ultimatums,” Sharmazanov said. Besides, he added, the president and Tsarukian operate in “different weight classes.”
Tsarukian, whose Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) is the second largest in parliament, was widely expected to run for president until his weekend confidential meeting with Sarkisian. The BHK announced on Wednesday that it will not field or support any presidential candidates. It gave no clear explanation for the move.
The announcement followed media reports that the BHK leader, who is one of the country’s richest men, came under strong pressure to pull out of the race. Media commentators have speculated that Tsarukian was warned that he could lose his business assets and face other forms of government retribution if he nominates his presidential candidacy.
Sharmazanov dismissed those claims as “empty talk and gossips.” “We are a democratic political force, and I think that this decision was entirely the BHK leader’s and the BHK Political Council’s,” he said.
Senior HHK figures insisted earlier this month that Tsarukian will not pose a serious threat to the incumbent president’s reelection plans should he decide to enter the fray. Many Armenian analysts thought otherwise, however, pointing to government pressure reportedly exerted on the BHK and its leader in the past year.
The BHK finished second in last May’s parliamentary elections after campaigning on an essentially opposition platform that predetermined its post-election exit from Armenia’s governing coalition. Its decision not to contest the upcoming presidential election means that hundreds of thousands of votes will be up for grabs for both Sarkisian and his opposition challengers.
Sharmazanov and another senior HHK figure, Education Minister Armen Ashotian, expressed confidence that many BHK members and supporters will vote for Sarkisian.
The ruling HHK will formally nominate Sarkisian for a second term at a congress scheduled for Saturday. The Armenian president is expected to unveil the key points of his campaign manifesto in a speech.
It emerged on Thursday that unlike top representatives of two other political parties, Orinats Yerkir and Dashnaktsutyun, Tsarukian has not been invited to the HHK congress yet. BHK spokesman Tigran Urikhanian downplayed this fact.
“Who says that the BHK is desperate to send a representative to one or another party congress?” Urikhanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) “Prosperous Armenia has much more serious things to think about.”
Urikhanian was vague about his party’s further steps. He said only that it will keep striving for “tangible changes for people.”