By Emil Danielyan
President Robert Kocharian stands no chance of winning next week’s presidential election outright in the first round because of strong public discontent with his five-year track record, one of his top challengers, Vazgen Manukian, said on Wednesday.
“Visiting various rural areas, I see that Kocharian has very few supporters,” Manukian told RFE/RL. “His first-round victory without vote falsification seemed to me impossible before the campaign and seems even more impossible now.”
“I understand Kocharian’s efforts [to avoid a run-off] because he would find it extremely difficult to win in the second round,” he added.
The leader of the National Democratic Union (AZhK) party was speaking during a campaign trip to several large villages in the southern Armavir province. Hundreds of people attended his rallies there, few of them expressing support for the current Armenian authorities.
Many confronted Manukian with tough questions about what they see as a lack of unity in the opposition ranks. But the AZhM leader sought to put an optimistic spin on the Armenian opposition’s failure to put forward a single challenger against Kocharian, saying that the voters now have a greater choice of personalities and programs. He also argued that the existence of several opposition candidates, each of whom has his own team of proxies, means that the electoral process will come under tighter scrutiny.
Manukian also assured local residents that the opposition candidates are working together to ensure a democratic election and would jointly fight against government attempts to manipulate its results. He said they are currently discussing specific “antidotes” against possible irregularities.
Kocharian and his allies, meanwhile, continue to prepare the public for his first-round win. Opinion polls conducted by government-connected organizations show that Kocharian’s approval ratings have nearly doubled since December and that he will get the overall majority of votes on February 19. A Yerevan newspaper quoted this week his campaign manager, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, as saying that the incumbent is facing no serious rivals.
However, the polling figures are brushed aside as a fraud by his political opponents. They argue that the stronger-than-expected attendance of opposition rallies during the first three weeks of campaigning shows that the current regime has lost touch with reality.
In the four villages visited by Manukian, disaffection with the government was evident, with many people complaining about poor living conditions and government neglect. “We haven’t seen any positive things under Kocharian. The situation has only worsened,” said Hamlet Taroyan, an elderly man in Mrgashat village 40 kilometers west of Yerevan.
The rule of law was again the main theme of Manukian’s speeches. “Without law and order this country can not register any progress,” he told a crowd in Mrgashat.
The opposition leader sought to win over disillusioned voters also with lavish economic promises. In particular, Manukian reiterated his campaign pledge to quadruple the meager state pensions, help the struggling agricultural sector with government subsidies and provide cheap credit to small businesses.
While the suggested measures strike a chord with the rural electorate, some interviewed villagers remained unconvinced that Manukian or any other opposition candidate can make a difference once in power. “The people have lost hope,” said one man in neighboring Janfida village. “Whoever gets a microphone today, gives promises and nothing else.”
“All we’ve been getting for the last 15 years is just promises,” complained another.