With the official start of Armenia's presidential election campaign this week, candidates are taking to the airwaves to make a broad array of political promises.
Although the pledge to wipe out corruption could prove the campaign's overarching theme, candidates are offering voters everything from a quadrupling of pensions and the creation of thousands of new jobs to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The election will be held on February 19.
The candidate list, finalized on January 21, combines several seasoned political veterans with a few relatively unknown figures. The nine contenders are; Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Republican Party of Armenia leader; former President Levon Ter Petrosian; Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Vahan Hovhannisian, Armenian Revolutionary Federation; Rule of Law Party Chairman Artur Baghdasarian; National Democratic Union leader Vazgen Manukian; National Unity Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian; People's Party leader Tigran Karapetian; Arman Manukian, former foreign policy advisor to the de facto former president of Nagorno-Karabakh, Arkady Ghukassian; and National Consent Party leader Aram Harutyunian.
As in Armenia's May 2007 parliamentary elections, public television has quickly emerged as the chief vehicle for reaching voters. [For additional information see EurasiaNet's Armenia: Vote 2007 special feature]. Under the election code, candidates during the campaign are allowed 60 minutes of free airtime and two hours of paid airtime on public television; two hours of free broadcasts and two and a half hours of paid broadcasts are allowed on public radio. The cost of one minute of airtime on public and private television ranges from 80,000 to 130,000 drams (about $264-$429).
By law, though, candidates can spend no more than 70 million drams (about $230,000) on their campaigns. An additional chance for voter exposure exists for candidates such as Prime Minister Sarkisian and Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Hovhannisian, who are able to make use of televised appearances for events not related to the election campaign.
Despite the controversy surrounding television coverage in the past, and ongoing opposition criticism of public television's coverage decisions, a representative of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia denies that the existing arrangement favors Sarkisian. "All conditions have been created for an equal election struggle," said party spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov. "Television channels provide proportional coverage of the campaigns and the airtime to use for campaign purposes is the same for all. The opposition has nothing to complain about."
"If someone fails to do something, he may well be looking for others to blame," Sharmazanov added.
Armenian Public Television's administration has repeatedly stated that it will maintain "equal conditions" for all candidates.
Opposition members charge that the station's election coverage is far from balanced. The heaviest criticism of Sarkisian occurs in newspapers with circulations in the thousands at best a fraction of public television's audience. Meanwhile, public television often refers to Ter Petrosian, Sarkisian's lead challenger, as the leader of the former ruling Pan-Armenian National Movement, rather than as a presidential candidate. Ter Petrosian, who founded the movement in 1989, has not headed the party since the 1990s.
"In fact, it is totally distorted in a most vulgar way," Nikol Pashinian, a key Ter Petrosian supporter and editor-in-chief of the opposition Haykakan Zhamanak daily, said about public television's campaign coverage. "We take reporters in half-empty buses to the regions to provide coverage, like all candidates do. As a result, public television makes it seem that we're transporting people on buses to make [our] rallies look
Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan.