Armenia's election: dark deeds, slim hopes

The Armenian authorities' capacity to secure the right result in the country's parliamentary election is matched by their failure to meet citizens' basic needs. The consequences are a priority for Armenia's civil society, says Krzysztof Bobinski.

Krzysztof Bobinski
7 June 2012

Armenia's parliamentary election held on 6 May 2012 failed to stand out as particularly dramatic among the many elections held in Europe in the past few months. But it is worth noting as an example of one of the trends in current democratic developments: an apparently open contest which was managed by the government so well as to get a result favouring the ruling party.

This landlocked country with a largely poor population of under 3 million has bad relations with neighbouring Turkey and even worse with nearby (and oil- and gas- rich) Azerbaijan. It is also beholden to Russia for support in case of a renewal of an armed conflict with Baku over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which it reclaimed from the Azeris in an ugly short war in the early 1990s. Armenia’s last presidential election in 2008 saw tens of thousands of demonstrators pour into the streets of Yerevan, the capital, to protest a result which they saw as fraudulent; ten were shot dead by security forces (see Armine Ishkanian, "Democracy contested: Armenia's fifth presidential elections", 4 March 2008).

The winner that time was Serzh Sarkisan, who today remains firmly ensconced in the presidential palace. His Republican Party of Armenia, which before the May election controlled sixty-four seats in the 131-seat parliament, emerged with sixty-nine seats after what international election-observers described as a "competitive, vibrant and largely peaceful" campaign. But the observers did notice "violations of campaign provisions and cases of pressure on voters" which meant that the electoral "playing-field" was "unequal".

The election was a rehearsal for the next presidential contest due in February 2013. It has left Armenia's opposition (whose main alliance, the Armenian National Congress (ANC), gained a mere 7% of the vote and seven seats in parliament) in a state of confusion as to how to proceed. For their part, civil-society organisations are wondering whether progress can be made towards holding a real election, in contrast to what one activist described as the manipulated "act of theatre" on 6 May.

The winning strategy

For the Armenian authorities, the main task in the election campaign was to show the European Union that the elections were free and fair. This was so because they desperately needed and still need promised financial aid from the EU. "That is why they wanted to impress Brussels while making sure they won", says another activist from a non-governmental organisation.

This was how it was done.

An initial message was delivered from the presidential administration both to the public media and to private-media outlets that they were to be scrupulously fair in their coverage of the various political parties. Thus there were copious debates on the air and in the print media on social issues and the state of the economy, judicial reforms, corruption, European integration and demographic challenges - with tens of thousands also following the exchanges on the internet. The public broadcasters made every effort to be fair, whether because of the instructions from on high or because they were happy to present unbiased reporting. In any event, monitors from the Yerevan Press Club headed by Boris Navasardian were suitably impressed.

The decision by the authorities to free up the debate carried the risk that voters would take seriously what they heard and start deciding on how they would vote on the basis of pledges made by the politicians. They need not have worried: the credibility of politicians in Armenia is so low that the campaign had little effect on voters' attitudes.

Instead, three further mechanisms were brought into play to build support. The first was simple vote-buying. In the main, one vote cost around €20 ($25); some say the price at times even went up to €80 ($100) as people bargained for a better deal. "People were happy to sell their vote as they thought that a straight cash payment was a very tangible benefit which they could get from the politicians - and worth much more than an election pledge", says Liana Syadan, an independent journalist, who heard people in her block of flats talking freely of the money they had taken to vote for the parties in the ruling coalition. These payments were important for poor people. "Indeed", she adds, "the prices of basic goods went up immediately after the elections as people spent their election profit."

The second was a well-organised system of multiple voting, whereby people were bussed around from one polling-station to another. Some, as well as voting many times, used their own identity-documents over and over again; others had multiple sets of documents so that they could do this with impunity. Voters’ lists were also replete with "dead souls" - names of people in derelict buildings and the like, who no longer or never had lived there.

The third tool used was pressure from bosses in the public administration, as well as in schools and hospitals and in private companies, to vote for the "right" party on pain of suffering discrimination at work or even getting the sack. This is euphemistically called the use of "administrative resources" and is becoming a well-established election norm in the former Soviet states.

The fact that these three mechanisms were used is common knowledge in Armenia. Yet they are also difficult to prove without witnesses willing to come forward and testify to irregularities. The only way to confirm multiple voting would be to check actual voting-lists to see who cast their vote; but the authorities refuse to show these, citing European court-judgments on the duty to withhold private data. Therein lies one of the problems for civil-society activists working for a fair election system.

The view from Gyumri

This situation was discussed recently at a meeting of Armenian NGOs - members of the Civil Society Forum of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership - in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city. Gyumri (then known as Leninakan) was hard-hit by the earthquake in 1988 when 27,000 people died in the town and in surrounding areas of northern Armenia. The destruction of this former textile centre (whose workers included Valentina Tereshkova, the Soviet Union’s first woman cosmonaut) was vast, and Gyumri has yet to recover. Almost a quarter-century later, 6,000 victims of the earthquake still live in container-dwellings, the streets are full of potholes, and street-lighting is almost non-existent.

Russian soldiers were once stationed in a Tsarist fortress built on the outskirts of the city to guard against the Ottoman empire. Russian troops are still there, ostensibly now to defend Armenia from a Turkish threat. A nearby rail-crossing into Turkey has been closed since the mid-1990s. Yet a newly built and magnificently illuminated city hall dominates Gyumri's main square, while down the street a hotel belonging to the mayor’s family is equally well-lit. At night, the contrast between these buildings and the darkness along streets elsewhere is striking (see Fred Halliday, "Armenia's mixed messages", 15 October 2008).

The mayor, Vardan Ghukasyan, has been in office since 1999 after winning successive elections. He faces another election this autumn. The failure to serve the basic needs of the citizens and the signs of arrogance by the authorities may not be enough to bring about a change in Armenia. But these are the conditions which have enraged people in Russia, even in the provinces, and moved them in autumn 2011 to question Vladimir Putin’s rule. Whether, sooner or later, that mood will come to be shared by Armenians, time will tell.

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