By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Karine Kalantarian
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian hit back on Wednesday at two of his main election challengers who have said that his popularity is being grossly inflated by pro-government pollsters.
Sarkisian insisted that U.S.-funded opinion polls giving him a huge lead over the eight other presidential candidates are not rigged by individuals conducting them. He also laughed off allegations by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian that the Armenian government is preparing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds on vote buying in the upcoming election.
The polls in question, financed by the U.S. government and designed by the Gallup Organization, have been conducted by the Armenian Sociological Association (ASA) ever since the effective start of the election campaign last autumn. According their results reported by the Armenian press, Sarkisian’s approval ratings rose from 29 percent to 35 percent this month, while opposition candidate Artur Baghdasarian remains a distant second in the rankings on 13 percent.
Other candidates, including Ter-Petrosian, have fared even worse in the surveys. According to the ASA, only between two and three percent of Armenians are ready to vote for their former president, even if he is seen by many pundits as Sarkisian’s most dangerous rival.
Ter-Petrosian and his allies dismiss the polling data as fraudulent, saying that the ASA chairman, Gevorg Poghosian, has close ties to the government and is tasked with legitimizing vote rigging. They also say that the ex-president would not have been vilified by the pro-government media since ending his decade-long political retirement last September had he really been unpopular.
These allegations were echoed earlier this week by Vahan Hovannisian, the presidential candidate of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a junior partner in the Sarkisian-led governing coalition. He said that he does not trust in the high ratings assigned to the prime minister.
Sarkisian was particularly scathing about Hovannisian as he responded to the allegations during a visit to Yerevan State University. “I have no reason to doubt what Vahan Hovannisian said,” he said with sarcasm. “I am convinced that he really doesn’t trust the results of those polls. Otherwise he would have stopped campaigning [for the presidency] or would have at least softened his tough attitude.”
Speaking to journalists, Sarkisian stressed the fact that the surveys are commissioned by the Americans, rather than his government. “We can tell fairy tales about Serzh Sarkisian bribing world-famous organizations,” he said. “But that will not stop sociology being a science. Nor will it stop pollsters treating those fairy tales with humor.”
Nonetheless, the credibility of the ASA surveys was also challenged on Wednesday by Baghdasarian, who claimed that their main purpose is to “brainwash the public.” “The polls are conducted by the well-known Gevorg Poghosian and his Armenian Sociological Association,” he told a news conference.
Baghdasarian, who leads the opposition Orinats Yerkir Party, said he has lodged a written complaint to Gallup and urged fellow presidential candidates to form joint teams of pollsters who would conduct “real surveys.”
Sarkisian also shrugged off Ter-Petrosian’s allegations that vote buying, which has become endemic in Armenia in recent years, will be his most important weapon during the February 19 election. Addressing hundreds of loyalists at the weekend, Ter-Petrosian charged that the authorities are ready to spend as much as $500 million on vote bribes and use Armenia’s state budget and hard currency reserves for that purpose.
“I am sure that before February 18-19 we will hear things which can not happen even in our nightmares,” scoffed Sarkisian. “Those who know something about Central Bank reserves will testify that such things do not correspond to reality. That’s just impossible to do.”
“But what can you do?” he said. “Perhaps that is what the [former ruling] HHSh thinks of a state. Perhaps they would try to do that if they were in power.”