By Emil Danielyan and Hovannes Shoghikian
Echoing reports by opposition candidates and local media, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe detailed on Thursday the widespread use of government resources in Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s election campaign.
In its second pre-election interim report, the main international vote-monitoring mission deployed in Armenia by the OSCE said its observers have “difficulties in distinguishing accurately between Serzh Sarkisian’s campaign and the work of local self-government” not least because some town and village mayors are “actively campaigning” for the prime minister.
“In addition, the Republican Party has a number of offices in local self- government buildings at various levels,” said the report. It quoted Sarkisian’s campaign manager, Deputy Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian, as saying that all of them have been “converted” into Sarkisian campaign offices.
Armenia’s Electoral Code prohibits the use of state property and other assets for the promotion of any election candidate.
The observers working under aegis of the OSCE’s Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) also touched upon the use of government resources for ensuring high turnout at Sarkisian’s campaign rallies. “An employee of a State institution reported to OSCE/ODIHR EOM observers that they were directed by their superior to attend one of Serzh Sarkisian’s campaign events,” read their report.
The report noted the fact that in the northern city of Vanadzor public transport was free and government offices “mostly deserted” on February 6, the day when Sarkisian campaigned in the area. “Observers were informed by employees that they had been told they could leave work to participate in the rally,” it said.
Sarkisian insisted, however, that nobody has been forced to attend his rallies as he campaigned in the southern Ararat region on Thursday. Addressing thousands of people in the regional capital Artashat, he said anyone in the crowd who came to the rally against their will is free to go home.
School teachers and their students have been a fixture at the prime minister’s nationwide gatherings, and Ararat was no exception. As he visited a local ancient monastery Sarkisian was greeted by scores of students and teachers from two nearby schools. They admitted that afternoon classes in their schools were cancelled as a result.
“The entire school staff is here,” said a schoolteacher from the village of Yeghegnavan.
“We are here to support the prime minister,” explained one or her colleagues. “There definitely need to be sacrifices. And this is our sacrifice.”
The OSCE/ODIHR mission also mentioned Sarkisian’s controversial decision last December to set up an ad hoc government body tasked with dealing with citizen complaints and requests. The government and the ruling Republican Party (HHK) say that the move had nothing to with the upcoming presidential election.
However, opposition candidates and former President Levon Ter-Petrosian in particular insist that the body’s activities amount to vote buying. They say that citizens needing assistance from the working group have to fill out special forms distributed to voters by the MIAK, a small pro-government party actively campaigning for Sarkisian.
The OSCE/ODIHR mission said the MIAK confirmed the information, adding in that regard that Armenian law “prohibits the use of administrative resources for campaign purposes.”
Its report covering the period between January 27 and February 9 further noted that Armenia’s leading TV stations, the most accessible source of election-related information, remain highly supportive of Sarkisian and biased against Ter-Petrosian. “On most of the media, the candidates’ total coverage time was more equitable than in the previous reporting period,” it said. “However, the coverage of Levon Ter-Petrosian in various broadcast media contained many critical remarks, while the other eight candidates were presented in a generally positive or neutral manner.”
“The news programs of almost all broadcast media except RFE/RL have almost entirely omitted to air Levon Ter- Petrosian’s critical remarks regarding Serzh Sarkisian and the incumbent president,” added the report.
(Photolur hoto: Sarkisian addresses a campaign rally.)