Friday, August 1, 2008

Armenia elections: Polls point to Sargsian victory

This was first published in the February 16, 2008 Armenian Reporter.

Armenia elections: Polls point to Sargsian victory
Ter-Petrossian’s campaign adds intrigue
[Post-election crisis likely]
News Analysis by Emil Sanamyan

WASHINGTON - Armenia appears headed toward a contentious election on February 19, pitting Prime Minister Serge Sargsian against his main challenger, ex-President Levon

Public opinion surveys, including those commissioned by an opposition-leaning newspaper, have consistently shown Mr. Sargsian, who also has the most organizational and financial strength, with a substantial advantage in public support.

But over the past two weeks Mr. Ter-Petrossian appears to have made inroads into the Armenian political establishment, gaining enough momentum to make the outcome of the upcoming vote less predictable.

Campaigning and organizational strength

While formally there are nine contenders in the upcoming elections, only four have run full-fledged national campaigns. In addition to Mr. Sargsian and Mr. Ter-Petrossian, the others in this field are former Parliament Speaker Artur Baghdasarian, and current Deputy Speaker Vahan Hovhannesian.

All four candidates have held massive rallies around Armenia, although the support and organizational strength for the candidates appears uneven in different parts of the country.

Benefiting from his de facto incumbency, Mr. Sargsian commands the strongest political machine comprised of the Republican (RPA) and Prosperous Armenia (PAP) parties, which hold a majority in parliament and have national outreach. RPA, PAP, as well as the United Labor and several smaller parties that support Mr. Sargsian cumulatively won nearly 53 percent of the vote in the May 2007 parliamentary elections.

Mr. Ter-Petrossian in turn is also benefiting from his past incumbency, with his campaign run primarily by former government officials who retain political and economic influence around Armenia. He has also attracted the support of a number of small political parties that cumulatively won more than 14 percent of the vote last May.

Mr. Hovhannisian and Mr. Baghdasarian are backed by their respective political parties – the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which won 13 percent of the vote in May 2007, and the Country of Laws party, which secured 7 percent.

The votes won by political parties last May can serve only as rough indicators of the starting organizational strength of the individual candidates. While Mr. Sargsian and Mr. Ter-Petrossian have polled at near the levels of the past combined performance of the parties now backing them (respectively 53 and 14 percent), Mr. Baghdasarian has been polling better than Mr. Hovannisian.

Polls and public support

Armenian opposition parties have criticized the integrity of the public opinion polls that all give Mr. Sargsian a strong lead. But they have not published any alternative polls that could contradict such findings. And polls are sufficiently consistent to provide a general picture of the relative popularity of individual candidates, more so than turnout at campaign rallies.

Although certain opinion polls, such as those commissioned by Mr. Sargsian’s campaign
(through Sociometer) as well as by media entities favoring Mr. Sargsian, may raise legitimate concerns about accuracy, it is harder to allege a pro-government bias in polling funded respectively by the U.S. government and Aravot newspaper, which editorially supports Mr. Ter-Petrossian.

The nationwide polls since January have placed Mr. Sargsian’s popularity anywhere between 43 (U.S.-funded) to 50 (Armenian Public TV-funded) to 67 (Sargsian campaign-funded) percent, with more recent polls showing an increase in support.

These findings are generally backed by the polling commissioned by Aravot, and conducted in Yerevan only. Based on six opinion polls involving 663 respondents each, conducted at monthly intervals since last September, Aravot’s polling (see table at p. A11) puts Mr. Sargsian well ahead even among the capital’s voters – who, unlike voters in most of the provinces, have traditionally favored challengers over incumbents.

According to this survey, while many voters in Yerevan would not state their preferences, the ex-president enjoys the highest “anti”-rating: that is, when voters were asked to name the candidate “whom they would never vote for” about 30 percent named Mr. Ter-Petrossian, and less than 10 percent Mr. Sargsian. According to these findings, Mr. Ter-Petrossian would also do worse than two other main challengers would against Mr. Sargsian in a potential run-off election should none of the candidates win over half of all votes cast on February 19.

Overall, Mr. Sargsian appears to be polling somewhat better than President Robert Kocharian was on the eve of 2003 election, in which Mr. Kocharian won just under 50 percent in the first round and more than two-thirds of the vote in the run-off.

Mr. Ter-Petrossian in turn is polling substantially worse than the main opposition challenger, Stepan Demirchian, did in January-February 2003.

Uncertainty of outcome, and certainty of crisis

Mr. Sargsian is continuing to enjoy advantages in organizational resources and popular support. Throughout his campaign, he has exuded confidence and offered only a restrained reaction to the daily barrage of accusations and insults coming from the opposition candidates, particularly from Mr. Ter-Petrossian, who has in turn been targeted heavily by pro-government media.

However, over the last week the ex-president’s campaign has gained momentum and has to a large degree succeeded in turning the election into a two-man race. Mr. Ter- Petrossian appears to be attracting voters who see him as an only candidate capable of mounting a strong challenge against Mr. Sargsian.

He won the endorsement of Raffi Hovannisian’s Heritage Party (which won 6 percent of the vote last May), as well as two parliament members previously allied with HHK, the prime minister’s party. Mr. Ter-Petrossian has also been backed by Aram Karapetian, a maverick politician who claims to be close to the Russian government and whose party won 3 percent of the vote last May.

Mr. Ter-Petrossian has thus largely reconstituted the 2003 opposition alliance, at the time led by Mr. Demirchian. The only change is that parties supporting former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian, who is running separately, have been replaced by Mr. Ter-Petrossian’s loyalists from the former ruling Armenian Pan National Movement (ANM).

Last Monday, Armenia’s ex-president went to Moscow and reportedly assured a pro- Kremlin pundit of his loyalty to Russian interests. While Mr. Ter-Petrossian’s television ads claimed that he met with senior members of the Russian government, those claims remained unconfirmed by Russian officials.

At the same time, the ex-president’s campaign pressured Mr. Baghdasarian, who has been coming second or third in most recent polls, to drop out of the race. Earlier this week, Mr. Ter-Petrossian said he was certain of Mr. Baghdasarian’s endorsement.

But on Thursday Mr. Baghdasarian refused to back the ex-president. Support for Mr. Ter-Petrossian from other candidates in the race, particularly Mr. Hovhannesian of ARF, is believed to be highly unlikely.

For months, Mr. Ter-Petrossian has also tried to woo away major players in Armenia’s establishment who have supported Mr. Sargsian – particularly PAP leader and businessman Gagik Tsarukian, with little success so far.

Last Wednesday, the ex-president claimed support from unidentified figures in the republic’s Police and the National Security Service, but those claims remained unsubstantiated as of press time.

The outcome of the electoral race, which has increasingly focused on Mr. Ter-Petrossian, Mr. Sargsian, and to an extent Mr. Baghdasarian, remains hard to predict.

Although Mr. Sargsian remains a favorite, the two major opposition campaigns also claim the inevitability of their victory and are unlikely to accept defeat without street protests and legal appeals to overturn the results.

While only one of the candidates can win, the balance of forces arrayed and the visible polarization of recent weeks make a postelection crisis likely, no matter the actual outcome of the vote.

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