The United States has offered to organize and finance a first-ever exit poll in Armenia as part of an effort to promote a free-and-fair presidential election on February 19. The initiative has been endorsed by the election favorite, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, while causing serious misgivings among his main challengers.
The main source of opposition candidates' concern is the apparent willingness of US officials to rely on an Armenian polling organization with reputed close ties to the Armenian government. Its pre-election opinion polls have long been criticized as misleading by Armenian opposition and civic groups.
Since the Soviet collapse in 1991, most elections in Armenia have been marred by serious instances of fraud, and strongly criticized by Western observers. Western monitors deemed the most recent, parliamentary elections, held in May 2007, to be more democratic than the previous ones, although the divided Armenian opposition again alleged widespread irregularities. [For background see the EurasiaNet special feature Armenia: Vote 2007]. The United States and the European Union have since been pressing the administration of outgoing President Robert Kocharian to make sure that the February 19 presidential vote marks an improvement over the parliamentary polls.
Preparations for the presidential ballot were high on the agenda of a December 4 meeting between Sarkisian and Joseph Pennington, the US charge d'affaires in Yerevan. A government statement quoted the Armenian premier as welcoming the proposed exit poll. "We were very pleased at the prime minister's very positive response, and we hope to be able to do this," Pennington told reporters on December 17. He said the exit poll would "enhance the credibility" of official vote results.
The remarks came amid a growing debate over the credibility of an ongoing series of opinion polls financed by the US Agency for International Development and commissioned by the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI). Although the polls are nominally conducted by a Lithuanian affiliate of the Gallup Organization, it is the controversial Armenian Sociological Association (ASA) that has done the crucial fieldwork of interviewing citizens and submitting the resulting data to the US pollster. The purpose of the "Armenia National Study" project launched by the USAID two years ago is to gauge public opinion on a wide range of issues facing Armenia, including the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and relations with Turkey.
Respondents have also been asked to rate the country's main political parties and presidential candidates. The IRI has chosen not to publicize the results of these queries, notifying instead each of those parties and candidates only of their own approval ratings. Most of them have made available their respective figures to the media, with Prime Minister Sarkisian appearing to be by far the most popular of the presidential hopefuls. According to the most recent survey, Sarkisian is on target to garner about 30 percent of the vote. Opposition leader and former parliamentary speaker Artur Baghdasarian would finish a distant second with 12 percent.
Another opposition candidate, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, was attracting just 2 percent support in the most recent poll, despite being viewed by many local commentators as Sarkisian's most formidable challenger. Betraying concern about the former president's political appeal, incumbent authorities have cracked down on Ter-Petrosian allies and vilified him in government-controlled media outlets in recent months. Yet, if one is to believe the Gallup/ASA pollsters, Ter-Petrosian has become even more unpopular with Armenians since holding the biggest opposition rallies in Yerevan in years in October and November. "This is too ridiculous to be true," said Aleksandr Arzumanian, a Ter-Petrosian campaign coordinator.
The credibility of the polls has also been questioned by Baghdasarian and Vahan Hovannisian, the presidential candidate of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), a junior partner in the Sarkisian-led governing coalition. Like Ter-Petrosian and his aides, they have stressed the fact that the polls are being conducted by the ASA, whose chairman, Gevorg Poghosian, is known to have close ties to the government. They allege that Poghosian is manipulating polling data on government orders to legitimize possible vote rigging.
Sarkisian laughed off such allegations as "fairy tales" on December 26. The US Embassy in Armenia likewise defended the polls on December 28, saying that they use a "methodology that is the mainstay of reputable Western polling organizations." Embassy representatives also played down the ASA's role in the process. "It is common practice to work with local organizations in carrying out such public opinion polls," the embassy said in a statement.
The statement made it clear that the Vilnius-based Baltic Surveys Ltd./Gallup Organization will also be entrusted with holding the planned exit poll on election day, suggesting that the ASA will be closely involved in its conduct. According to aides to Ter-Petrosian, Hovannisian and Baghdasarian interviewed by EurasiaNet, ASA's participation would be enough to make the poll untrustworthy for Sarkisian's three main challengers.
"We don't trust the Armenian Sociological Association and believe that it works on government orders," claimed Arzumanian. "If Serzh Sarkisian issues a relevant order, the results of the exit poll will be the same as the ones the authorities will try to get by fraudulent means on election day."
"It would be right if the Americans conducted the poll by themselves, rather than through the ASA or other local organizations whose objectivity and professionalism is well known to us," said Spartak Seyranian, a spokesman for the ARF.
"Exit polls will be worth it only if they don't involve any Armenian organization," agreed Heghine Bisharian, Baghdasarian's campaign manager. "We can't regard them as trustworthy if they are conducted in the same format [as the ongoing opinion polls]."
A spokesman for Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia scoffed at these statements. "They know very well that Serzh Sarkisian's rating is much higher than theirs," Eduard Sharmazanov told EurasiaNet. "And I don't think that the Americans would entrust this job to non-professionals."
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.