Fighting for a Voice: Heritage party says campaign is fraudulent before it has begun

A strong ally in oppositionists’ efforts to unseat the current government regime says that regardless of what happens on May 12, Armenia’s parliamentary elections already fail to meet democratic standards.

And the campaign hasn’t even begun.

The Heritage party, founded in 2002 by Armenia’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs and would-be presidential candidate Raffi K. Hovannisian, has prepared and distributed to international agencies here a 4-page manifesto of sorts giving chapter and verse, that is a party indictment on political persecution.

In a “Brief Summary of Violations and Obstacles”, and in statements to Armenianow, the party charges that, among other alleged wrongdoing:

• Leader Hovannisian has been routinely detained at Zvartnots International Airport when attempting to travel abroad.

• Common members of the party have been subjected to illegal police questioning, and one member even was denied social welfare benefits due to his party affiliation.

• Members have been fired from jobs when it was learned that they belonged to Heritage party, and 300 have been forced by employers to give up membership in order to keep their jobs.

• A smear campaign by pro-government media accused Hovannisian’s wife, Armenuhi, of using funds from a charity campaign to divert money to the party.

• The party, and Hovannisian in particular, are denied media coverage because of a “black list” that originated from the Office of the President, following a 2005 public statement in which Hovannisian implied that President Robert Kocharyan had engaged in criminal activity.

Saying his office could not make any “clear comment” on the matter, Presidential Press Secretary Victor Soghomonyan told ArmeniaNow that the accusations in Heritage’s document are “maybe a figment of Mr. Hovanissian’s imagination. Without doubt, there is no pressure.”

Now, as the “official” campaign for parliament seats begins February 26 (and pre-campaign activities have been underway for half a year), Heritage says it is being denied access to the public.

“We realize that these (upcoming) elections have already been violated, Heritage party Chairman of the Board Vartan Khachatryan told ArmeniaNow. “Everything illegal has been done to prohibit our participation.”

During recent months as parties across Armenia have been gearing up for the campaign, Khachatryan says his party has been targeted by police who intimidate members when Heritage attempts to hold public meetings. In the province of Armavir last fall, police surrounded the Heritage party office, he said, and in Gyumri, Vanadzor, Kapan and other cities and towns they have been denied rental space of public and private meeting halls.

Khachatryan says the party’s alternative is to try to get its message out via information to its 5,000 members and on internet (www.heritage.am). But:

With less than 2 percent of Armenian homes having online access, and with an apparent blackout by television (where the vast majority of the republic gets its news), the party is severely disadvantaged.

The party chairman, though, is philosophical when asked whether resistance is futile.

“Our struggle is for ideas, and not just for tomorrow’s gain,” Khachatryan says.

It is a struggle, too, to see Hovannisian’s beleaguered efforts to run for President realized.

Khachatryan says that, despite the disadvantages of being on the wrong side of the power structure, Heritage will actively lobby for fair elections in May. It is the party’s hope that a legitimate election would create a more democratic environment under which Hovannisian’s long-running dispute over his citizenship status might be reconsidered.

The background: In 1991, Hovannisian, then a US citizen, applied for Armenian citizenship, but was told no law existed yet for such application. In 1996, he applied and was denied, in a decision that was seen by his supporters as politically motivated. He finally earned citizenship in 2001. In 2002, he argued to a court that his original application for citizenship should be considered in determining his right to run for president. The court denied his motion. Based on that ruling, and on the constitutional mandate that presidential candidates hold citizenship for at least 10 years, Hovanissian is not presently eligible to run for president until after 2011.

Khachatryan, who maintains that “the opposition has won in every election”, says that if these parliamentary elections are democratically determined, Hovannisian will apply to an appeals court to re-hear his citizenship case. If the court ruled in Hovannisian’s favor, he would be eligible to put up his candidature for next year’s presidential race.

It is toward that goal and toward seeing Heritage members in Parliament (the party did not run in the 2003 parliamentary elections), that the party has appealed to international agencies to change the way they monitor elections in Armenia.

Khachatryan says that, in past elections, observers have randomly monitored polling stations and, though having cited numerous violations, may have not gotten an accurate representation of fraud.

Heritage is suggesting that, in these elections, some 200 or so observers be placed on permanent detail during Election Day at selected stations. Then, he says, results can be compared with stations in which no observer was present, to see if voting patterns show noticeable differences.

The party chairman says Heritage has not yet received a reply to its suggestion to various election-related bodies.