By Ruzanna Khachatrian
President Robert Kocharian invited Stepan Demirchian on Monday to an unprecedented live televised debate, hoping that his knowledge of government affairs will contrast with the opposition challenger’s lack of political experience and earn him additional votes in the March 5 run-off.
“We support the idea of a televised debate at any level,” Kocharian’s campaign spokesman, Vahagn Mkrtchian, told RFE/RL, explaining that the two men could alternatively send their top aides. He said the incumbent is ready for a live discussion on any major television channel.
Demirchian had initially rejected the idea, demanding that the authorities first release his arrested supporters. But he indicated on Sunday a shift in his position, telling reporters that a debate before TV cameras would only “accelerate Kocharian’s defeat.”
During his successful election campaign Demirchian rejected interview requests from the state-run Armenian Public Television (APT), apparently fearing that the pro-Kocharian channel is bent on embarrassing him. The APT and major private channels supporting the incumbent are increasingly pouncing on Demirchian's weak points, seeking to portray him as an immature politician who is highly dependent on his more radical entourage.
Their perceived biased coverage of the campaign was denounced by Demirchian and his opposition allies at a rally on Sunday. But Mkrtchian denied the widely held belief that Kocharian has enjoyed a huge advantage over his rivals in getting his message across. He said the presidential team itself is unhappy with the election coverage by several private TV stations.
Still, Western observers who followed the election campaign concluded in their report that the state-run APT “failed to comply with its legal obligation to provide balanced and unbiased reporting on candidates, violating the principle of equal access for all candidates.”
“Private broadcasters were even more biased in favor of the incumbent, largely ignoring opposition candidates,” said the monitoring mission from the OSCE and the Council of Europe. “For example, the only private channel with nationwide outreach, Prometevs, allocated 61 percent of its prime-time news to the incumbent with an exclusively positive tone.”
The report also concluded that the closure last year of the independent A1+ and Noyan Tapan channels “contributed to a lack of balanced sources of information.”
Mkrtchian on Monday confirmed that Kocharian will change his campaign tactics after his worse-than-expected performance in the February 19 first round. He said the Kocharian campaign has had unspecified “organizational shortcomings” and will now be more active in fighting back “opposition propaganda.”
Mkrtchian declined to say whether the presidential team will undergo staff changes suggested by some Kocharian allies. A leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), Vahan Hovannisian, suggested last week that the presence of unpopular government officials in it may have alienated many voters. The opposition candidates have strongly attacked such officials, publicly deriding notorious nicknames with which some of them are known.
Mkrtchian again denied that the election results were affected by serious irregularities reported by opposition proxies and election observers. “The Central Election Commission must clearly reply whether those irregularities affected the election results,” he said.
“We instructed our supporters to refrain from any disorders and wrong steps,” he added. “It’s just that the educational level of the people is not as high [as Kocharian campaigners’].”