By Emil Danielyan
The U.S. embassy in Yerevan defended on Friday the objectivity of U.S.-funded pre-election opinion polls conducted in Armenia, which has been questioned by Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s main election challengers.
The polls, financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and commissioned by the International Republican Institute, have been conducted on a regular basis since March 2006 with the aim of gauging public opinion on key issues facing Armenia. Respondents have also been asked by pollsters from the Armenian Sociological Association (ASA), overseen by the U.S. Gallup Organization, to rate the country’s main political leaders and parties.
Interest in the surveys has grown substantially in advance of the February 19 presidential election, with politicians and media commentators discussing ratings assigned to the main election candidates. Sarkisian has emerged as by far the most popular of the candidates, leading his allies to declare that his victory in the vote is a forgone conclusion.
However, four other major contenders, including deputy parliament speaker Vahan Hovannisian and former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, have dismissed the polls as fraudulent, citing the ASA’s reputedly close ties to the government. The ASA’s polling data have often coincided with the official results of Armenian elections described as undemocratic by Western observers.
In a statement, the U.S. embassy dismissed the mounting criticism whipped up by the pro-opposition press. “While the Embassy is encouraged that the study has focused the attention of Armenian society and political parties on the important electoral processes underway in the country, we are nevertheless concerned by the inaccurate portrayals of the study being reported in some national media,” it said.
The statement downplayed Armenian pollsters’ role in the process, saying that the polls are conducted by a Lithuanian affiliate of Gallup “with the assistance of the Armenian Sociological Association.” “It is common practice to work with local organizations in carrying out such public opinion polls,” it said, adding that they are based on a “methodology that is the mainstay of reputable Western polling organizations.”
“Neither the United States government, the International Republican Institute nor Baltic Surveys Ltd. / Gallup Organization endorses any particular party or candidate,” the statement stressed.
The embassy also reaffirmed the USAID’s plans to finance Armenia’s first-ever exit polls on election day. Prime Minister Sarkisian was reported to have approved those plans at a December 4 meeting with Joseph Pennington, the U.S. charge d’affaires. The embassy made it clear that the exit polls would be organized by Baltic Surveys/Gallup but did not specify if the ASA would again be contracted to do the crucial fieldwork.
Aides to Hovannisian, Ter-Petrosian, as well as another opposition candidate, Artur Baghdasarian, claim that the ASA’s involvement would compromise the integrity of the planned polls and legitimize possible vote rigging.
(Photolur photo: Joseph Pennington.)