By Ruzanna Khachatrian, Emil Danielyan and Karine Kalantarian
President Robert Kocharian made on Monday more indications of his intention to win a second term in office already in the first round of presidential elections on February 19.
“Opinion polls show that that is quite realistic,” Kocharian said, answering questions from RFE/RL during a visit to the Central Election Commission in Yerevan. “But the pre-election struggle remains a pre-election struggle and we must work hard. Time will tell [whether we succeed].”
Most opinion polls give Kocharian a substantial lead over his main challengers. The surveys conducted by government-linked pollsters and mainly publicized by pro-presidential media claim a steady increase in his popularity. Their authors say Kocharian is now popular enough to avoid a run-off clash with an opposition contender.
But other researchers are more cautious in their predictions. According to Aleksandr Avetisian, director of a private polling group called the Center for Pre-Election Techniques, Kocharian’s chances of first-round victory are “fifty-fifty.”
“It is difficult to make such a forecast at the moment because, in my and not only my opinion, it is campaigning that will have a decisive impact [on the election outcome],” Avetisian told RFE/RL.
The center’s weekly opinion polls in Yerevan commissioned by the pro-opposition “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily put Kocharian in the lead with approval ratings hovering between 22 and 25 percent. His nearest challenger, Stepan Demirchian of the People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), is backed by less than 11 percent of the capital’s surveyed residents. Demirchian is, in turn, followed by another opposition leader, Artashes Geghamian.
Avetisian said that the aggregate rating of several opposition candidates now slightly exceeds Kocharian’s popularity in Yerevan, suggesting that the two camps’ chances are “roughly equal” there. But the pollster added that voters outside the city are traditionally more supportive of the ruling regimes. He also argued that Kocharian is running a more organized and expensive campaign is backed by virtually all major television stations.
Kocharian, meanwhile, dismissed opposition complaints that the main TV channels have aired pro-presidential propaganda before the official start of campaigning on Tuesday. “The campaigning begins on January 21 and this means that the legally guaranteed equal distribution of airtime takes effect on January 21. Until then every TV channel is free to choose what to broadcast,” he told reporters after receiving his mandate of a presidential candidate issued by the CEC.
Under the country’s election law, every presidential candidate is entitled to 60 minutes of airtime free of charge and no more 120 minutes of paid airtime for running campaign ads on the state-run Armenian Public Television (APT). Private networks are not bound by such requirements.
Under a schedule approved by the CEC on Monday, a single candidate will not be able to use more than 6 minutes of airtime a day on state television from January 21 to February 8. The limit will increase to 10 minutes from February 9-17. The decision was made despite vehement protests from the proxies of opposition candidates. They complained that the opposition will not be able to run long advertisements.
“This will simply restrict the candidates’ possibilities, rather than ensure equal conditions for them,” said a representative of Aram Sarkisian, a candidate from the opposition Hanrapetutyun party.
The electronic media have already broadcast programs that cast the incumbent president in favorable light. A one-hour program aired by APT on Saturday, for example, featured casual interviews with Kocharian, his wife Bella and their three children. Kocharian had rarely allowed TV cameras into his family’s secluded Yerevan residence.
Opposition leaders are even more rare guests at state television.
(Photolur photo: CEC chairman Artak Sahradian, right, giving a candidate's mandate to Robert Kocharian.)