By Karine Simonian and Ruzanna Stepanian
Authorities in Armenia’s third largest city of Vanadzor provided for free public transportation, cancelled classes and suspended the work of other public institutions in an apparent effort to ensure high turnout at Prime Sarkisian’s campaign rally there on Thursday.
The effort clearly paid off, with thousands of people gathering in the main town square early in the afternoon to hear Sarkisian speak mid-way through a concert of Armenian pop singers supporting his presidential bid.
Vanadzor Mayor Samvel Darpinian could be seen there already in the morning, overseeing preparations for the rally. He visibly counted the number of people in attendance moments before the start of the high-profile event.
“We have no attendance targets,” Darpinian told RFE/RL. “If people want to come here, they will. If not, they won’t come.” The mayor also said that the municipality has nothing to do with the fact that public transportation in Vanadzor was free of charge on Wednesday.
But bus drivers claimed the opposite. “The municipality is sponsoring us today,” one of them told RFE/RL. “The owner of the bus route gave me money and said that I will be driving free of charge today.”
By noon classes in local schools, colleges and even kindergartens ground to a halt, with teachers and lecturers flocking to the square along with their students. “This was not done for the rally,” said Edita Vartanian, principal of the Vanadzor School No. 9. “It’s just that first-rate bands will be arriving from the capital. We just wanted to expose the kids to the spirit of the capital a little.”
The administrative measures followed what appears to have a become pattern in Sarkisian’s government-backed election campaign. Teenage students, teachers and other public sector employees have been a fixture in the prime minister’s other campaign rallies in Yerevan and other parts of the country.
Sarkisian began his speech in the capital of the northern Lori region by attacking unspecified presidential candidates who are “filled with malice” and “throw mud at what is being created.” He also assured local residents that if elected president he will complete the protracted reconstruction of Lori and other Armenian regions devastated by the 1988 earthquake.
Sarkisian gave similar promises in Spitak, another Lori town which was razed by the calamity. “Without your assistance, your active participation we will not be able to build a just society,” he told a rally there. “Without your active involvement we will not be able to fight against corruption.”
“So those who think that by voting for Serzh Sarkisian they will vote for easy life are wrong. Those who vote for Serzh Sarkisian, vote for hard work, prosperity and a decent life,” added the election favorite.
Incidentally, Sarkisian’s most formidable challenger, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, visited Spitak earlier in the day and pulled a much smaller crowd. Ter-Petrosian accused local authorities of bullying people not to attend his meetings
“Remove that fear from yourself,” he told local residents. “Rest assured that there is nothing these authorities can do to you. They are weak and petty. Straighten your backs, and a lot will change in your lives.”
Campaigning in nearby villages still reeling from the effects of the devastating quake, Ter-Petrosian deliberately stood next to Sarkisian’s ubiquitous campaign banners to address small crowds. Many local residents complained about their poor housing conditions. One man in the village of Gyulagarak wondered how much the ex-president would pay for his vote. The father of eight explained that he wants to sell his vote to the highest bidder because he needs money to repair the leaking roof of his shack.
“I don’t need your vote for money,” responded Ter-Petrosian. “Give your vote to Serzh.”