Monday, February 18, 2008
Sarkisian Campaign: Looking for "a Good Harvest"
By Marianna Grigoryan: 02/18/08

Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian ended his campaign on February 17 with a vast rally in downtown Yerevan that affirmed the advantages of the status quo and cast main rival Levon Ter-Petrosian as a risky agent for destabilization.

"You are representatives of the majority," he told a crowd in the tens of thousands gathered in front of Yerevan's Opera House. "We have invited you here for them to understand once more that they are a minority, that they have nothing to do in government, that they cannot shake this country," Sarkisian said in reference to the supporters of ex-President Ter-Petrosian, who has emerged as the race's lead opposition candidate.

Apparently meant as a final showdown with Ter-Petrosian over numbers, the rally -- with a turnout Sarkisian jokingly put at anywhere from 1 million to 2 million people -- was attended by participants from throughout Armenia and even Samtskhe-Javakhketi, a primarily ethnic Armenian region in neighboring Georgia.

"During the last month, we have gone through all regions of Armenia, we visited hundreds of areas," Sarkisian declared as confetti fell on the cheering crowd. "We listened to everyone who wished to talk. We sowed seeds of optimism and goodness. We expect a good and robust harvest."

Striking a biblical note, the prime minister went on to urge his supporters to beware of false prophets - a clear reference to Ter-Petrosian. As did the former president's supporters on February 16, Sarkisian supporters trailed through downtown Yerevan on a short march, ending up at a nearby church to conclude the candidate's send-off.

While many participants stressed that they had turned out for the final rally because they believed in Sarkisian's "strength," other participants, requesting anonymity, told EurasiaNet that their employers had bused them in.

Loudspeakers broadcast cheers in addition to those of the crowd, while, behind the tribune, wearing the campaign's "Forward, Armenia!" scarves, stood government ministers and legislators. As he spoke, youth activists from Sarkisian's ruling Republican Party of Armenia resolutely waved party banners over the prime minister's head.

"I am asking for a vote of goodness. I am asking for a vote of optimism. I am asking you to vote for a better Armenia, a progressive Armenia, a developed Armenia," Sarkisian said in his 30-minute speech, occasionally interrupted by cheers. "I am asking for confidence and a vote for our country and home, Armenia, to become also our fortress, for our citizens to feel secure and protected in our country."

One prominent Republican Party parliamentarian attributed the buoyant show of support to the campaign's organizational skills.

"Unlike certain pseudo-scientists, we know what to do," said Armen Ashotian, referring to the public rallies organized by Ter-Petrosian, a scholar by training. "We calculate everything in advance and get such a result thanks to that, to looking at everything professionally."

The regular presence of Armenian entertainment celebrities at the prime minister's campaign events has been taken as another sign of his campaign's "professional approach." The pop stars, a regular feature of the 2007 parliamentary campaign as well, have proven a key inducement for school children's attendance at the rallies. Both the stars and the Republican Party itself, however, deny that they are paid for their appearances.

Critics of Sarkisian's campaign are quick to raise the likely cost involved in displaying the prime minister's face on billboards and banners throughout Armenia, or for the fluttering campaign flags seen on hundreds of taxis, minibuses and private cars. According to Armenia's Electoral Code, candidates must not spend more than 70 million drams (about $225,000) on the election campaign. The latest expenditures submitted to the Central Election Commission were not immediately available.

Opposition parties, however, contend that the figures are fudged. Heghine Bisharian , deputy chairperson for candidate Artur Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) Party, argues that it is impossible to do all that the Sarkisian campaign has done to date for 70 million drams.

"This money could be just enough only to cover the cost of printing campaign flyers and having some airtime on television," Bisharian said. Prices for campaign TV spots range between 70,000 and 130,000 drams [about $226 and $420] per minute, a publicity outlet arguably dominated by Sarkisian, according to international and local election monitor reports.

Bisharian also takes issue with the Sarkisian billboards prevalent throughout Yerevan; Baghdasarian was only allotted 12 such spots, she claims. "Several '70 million drams' have been spent in Sarkisian's case. Administrative levers have been employed."

Arman Musinian, a spokesperson for the Ter-Petrosian campaign, echoed that criticism, telling EurasiaNet that the ex-president's campaign had had similar problems with the placement of posters. Told to apply to the management of several Yerevan apartment buildings for permission to hang campaign posters, the campaign was then told that the buildings had become Sarkisian's campaign office, he alleged.

"What do you think, is it possible to resolve the problem in that case? " Musinian asked.

In its recently published second interim report the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) flagged the use of "administrative resources," despite prohibition of the practice under the election code. The report, in particular, cited their use in connection with the Sarkisian campaign.

"OSCE/ODIHR observers in the provinces reported that they found it difficult to make a clear distinction between Serzh Sarkisian's campaign and the work of local government bodies, partly because certain mayors actively campaign in favor of Mr. Sarkisian," the report said.

The Helsinki Citizens Assembly, a local human rights group that has tracked the campaign in ten towns, agrees with that assessment, and has added to it.

"Regional governors, leaders, representatives of government staff are all members of the RPA and use government and administrative levers to create an atmosphere of fear," alleged Artur Sakunts, director of the group's Vanadzor office.

Republican Party parliamentarian Ashotian rejects such criticism.

"We ourselves have encountered numerous obstacles," he said. "Some of the opposition newspapers refused to publish our candidate's advertisement. Isn't that an obstacle? Meanwhile, they run Levon Ter-Petrosian's advertisement for free. This is also use of levers."

Republican Party spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov, meanwhile, shrugs off the accusations by the Helsinki Citizens Assembly as absurd.

"Our party has always been and will always be an advocate of the law and justice," Sharmazanov said. "All conditions for an equal struggle had been created during the election campaign. The question is whether the candidates managed to exercise their rights. If there is evidence that we have broken the law, which is not the case, they [critics] may go to court. This is neither some made-up tale, nor a game."

At a February 14 press conference, the Central Election Commission stated that it had received two complaints about campaign spending in excess of established limits, but that "[i]inquiries established that the information was incorrect."

Speaking to the crowd on Sunday, Serzh Sarkisian did not directly address the issue of campaign spending, but assured his supporters that the February 19 vote will meet international standards. Campaigning was not allowed on February 18.

"We will not allow certain people to try to discredit the elections," he said. "We will not allow the aspirations and malice of certain people to become decisive."

Editor's Note: Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for the weekly in Yerevan.