By Astghik Bedevian
International observers indicated Thursday their concerns about Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s heavy reliance on his government levers in the Armenian presidential race and pledged to investigate a violent incident that nearly disrupted a campaign rally by opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian.
Geert Ahrens, head of the main international vote-monitoring mission deployed in Armenia by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Sarkisian’s “use of the position of prime minister in the election campaign” could hamper the proper conduct of the February 19 vote.
“There is no international rule that would prevent a prime minister from participating as a candidate in a presidential race,” Ahrens told RFE/RL in an interview. “But such a situation, of course, puts a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the prime minister not to use his office to promote his candidacy.”
“Of course, it is a matter of concern when the line that should not be overstepped is being overstepped,” he said.
Sarkisian has come under opposition fire for capitalizing on his and his Republican Party’s grip on many government bodies to gain extensive coverage by Armenia’s leading TV stations and ensure high turnout at his campaign rallies across the country. Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, he argued that the Armenian Electoral Code does not explicitly bar him from combining his prime-ministerial duties with election-related activities.
“As you know elections in Armenia are monitored by numerous observers,” Sarkisian said in response to a question from an opposition parliamentarian. “And if the observers say that I, as you claim, have blatantly violated the law and inflicted great damage on the country, I will think about this issue.”
The prime minister also claimed that schoolteachers, students and other public sector employees are not forced to attend his campaign rallies as has been reported by the local press. “You can try and meet those people [attending Sarkisian’s rallies] and ask whether they are kept there by police or army cordons,” he said. “The reputation of Armenia’s future president is very dear to me and I will do everything in my power to ensure that Armenia’s future president has a good reputation.”
Sarkisian’s campaign spending is another source of controversy. According to the Central Election Commission, it totaled 26.3 million drams ($85,000) as of January 31, well below the 70 million-dram limit set by the Electoral Code. Opposition politicians dismiss the figure as fraudulent, saying that Sarkisian could not have flooded Yerevan and just about every Armenian town and village with his campaign billboards and posters with that much money.
The Ter-Petrosian campaign has also cried foul over Sarkisian’s December 4 decision to form a special government commission dealing with citizens’ grievances, saying that its activities amount to vote buying. The opposition candidates’ aide claim that voters needing financial and other assistance are being referred to the commission by Sarkisian’s campaign offices.
Ter-Petrosian on Tuesday accused the OSCE observers of turning a blind eye to this and other alleged violations. “They don’t see or don’t want to see that,” he said. “At least, there have been no preventive steps, no statements on their part.”
“We are dealing with this,” Ahrens said, responding to the former Armenian president’s claims. “If this is the case, then this would of course be a way of using administrative resources that would not be acceptable.”
The OSCE mission chief also expressed concern about violence that marred Ter-Petrosian’s Wednesday in Artashat, a town 30 kilometers south of Yerevan. A group of pro-government youths there scuffled with Ter-Petrosian’s loyalists and pelted them with stones in an apparent attempt to disrupt the gathering. The ex-president condemned the incident witnessed by two OSCE observers as a government “provocation” aimed at derailing his campaign. Law-enforcement authorities claimed, however, that Ter-Petrosian and his allies themselves provoked it by making “offensive” remarks about Deputy Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian, Sarkisian’s Artashat-based campaign manager.
“We will certainly investigate this incident,” Ahrens said. “We have long-term observers everywhere in the country. They will talk to all those involved and then submit a report to us. Then on that basis we can form our judgment on this incident.”
“Whoever is to blame, any such incident is deplorable,” he added.