Armenia: Opinion Polls a Fresh Field for Political Battle

Opinion polls are showing that the governing Republican Party of Armenia and the pro-government Prosperous Armenia Party should command a comfortable majority of votes in Armenia's parliamentary elections on May 12. Some opposition parties, however, claim the findings are fraudulent -- the product of partisan politics.

There is one area -- the popular mood -- where opposition leaders agree with pollsters. The recent polling data indicates that discontent over the status quo is widely prevalent. A March 16-25 survey of 1,200 residents run by Baltic Surveys Ltd./The Gallup Organization and the Armenian Sociological Association for the International Republican Institute reported that 50 percent of respondents believe the country is on the wrong tack, and 59 percent said that they have no hope for a fair election.

A January survey run by the APR Group indicated still higher discontent: 94.3 percent of 663 respondents surveyed believe Armenia needs "radical" socio-economic changes, while a whopping 83 percent stated that they do not trust government authority.

Under recent constitutional amendments, the parliament elected on May 12 will be more powerful than in the past and, in theory, is expected by some observers to take a more active role in shaping domestic and foreign policies.

Aharon Adibekian, head of the Sociometer polling center, compares the struggle to a wrestling tournament, with parties divided into weight categories. A survey of 3,000 respondents run by Sociometer in 60 population centers nationwide indicates that the bulk of votes will go to parties in what Adibekian terms the "heavyweight category." He predicts the ruling Republican Party of Armenia will receive a 34 percent share, with 32 percent going to oligarch Gagik Tsarukian's pro-government Prosperous Armenia Party. The opposition Country of Law Party, a middleweight contender, he says, will trail a distant third at 10-12 percent.

Other opposition parties bring up the rear, headed by the Heritage Party, (another "middleweight" party), with an estimated 7-8 percent of the vote, followed by the "lightweight" National Unity Party and People's Party of Armenia, leaders of the 2004 protests against President Robert Kocharian, garnering 7 percent or less.

The pollster predicts that the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, part of the current government coalition, will receive 8-10 percent of the vote, while the United Labor Party, a fellow coalition member, may not even meet the necessary 5 percent of the vote necessary to take seats in parliament.

Some politicians downplay the survey data, expressing the belief that some pollsters are working with officials to create an electoral climate favorable to incumbent authority. "Society is sick and tired of both lying politicians and corrupt sociologists," Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Vahan Hovhannisyan, a senior leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, told journalists on April 7.

Manuk Gasparian, chairman of the strongly oppositional Democratic Way Party, which Adibekian claims will receive zero percent of the vote, elaborated on that take: "We'll see who is zero," Gasparian scoffed. "Adibekian serves the authorities and purposefully publishes data to mislead people, [to give them the opportunity] to falsify votes and say later that [a party's victory] was [the result of] their popularity." Gasparian puts his party's likely results at 8 percent of total vote, provided that the election is free-and-fair.

Armenian political parties have generally held international polling organizations in greater esteem than local ones, but this time, a survey run by British pollster Populus shows roughly comparable results. A Populus survey of 2,000 individuals, conducted April 3-10, predicted 31 percent of the vote for the Republican Party, 27 percent for Prosperous Armenia, 11 percent for the Country of Law, 8 percent for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, 7 percent for the opposition National Unity and 5 percent for the People's Party of Tigran Karapetian. The poll had a 1 percent margin of error.

Both Populus and Adibekian reported growing popularity for the Republican Party of Armenia, which has received a preponderance of mass media campaign coverage, according to monitors. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Populus Director Andrew Cooper pointed out during an April 20 press conference that the governing party was well organized and appeared to have a highly motivated voter base. "The important thing is that people who are going to support the Republicans are more likely to take part in the voting than the supporters of other parties," Cooper said.

Adibekian claimed that Prosperous Armenia, often seen as a rival to the Republican Party, has experienced a nearly 40 percentage point decline in popularity since November-December 2006. The pollster puts it down to what he describes as the diminished popularity of the various charity programs associated with the party's head, Gagik Tsarukian -- an observation not widely born out by media reports from the field.

Adibekian's predicted turnout for the upcoming vote is also cause for controversy: a relatively high 60 percent, by his estimate, the same number recorded for official turnout during the rowdy 2003 parliamentary elections. By contrast, a poll run in March by Baltic Surveys/The Gallup Organization and the Armenian Sociological Association predicted a 43 percent turnout.

"It's a big question whether Adibekian's predictions come true, or if he just states the authorities' scenario," commented Aram Karapetian, chairman of the hard-line oppositional New Times Party.

Adibekian brushes off the criticism. Clients would not pay $10,000 - $15,000 per survey, he stressed, for fraudulent results.

Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the independent online ArmeniaNow weekly in Yerevan.

Armenia: Opinion Polls a Fresh Field for Political Battle

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