Armenia: Potato Democracy

Politicians’ charitable activities - which include handing out potatoes - are dismissed by some as attempts to win over voters.

Armenia: Potato Democracy

Politicians’ charitable activities - which include handing out potatoes - are dismissed by some as attempts to win over voters.

Armenia is due to hold parliamentary elections this spring and political parties have already begun a series of public relations activities that they describe as “charity” but their opponents say amounts to buying votes.

The committee of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly monitoring Armenia’s compliance with council standards has drafted a resolution, to be put to the assembly in January, warning the Armenian government that it will be paying close attention to the coming poll.

The proposed resolution says that the assembly is “disappointed that, since Armenia's accession to the Council of Europe in 2001, not a single election held there has been deemed fully free and fair”.

“It is essential that the next ballot should at last comply with European standards for free and fair elections, as proof of Armenia's progress along the road to democracy and European integration,” continues the text.

In Armenia itself, however, accusations of malpractice are already beginning, several months ahead of polling day. In past elections candidates were accused of buying votes by distributing sugar, flour or money to voters, but this time a much more sophisticated campaign is taking place.

In October, the Bargavach Hayastan (Flourishing Armenia) party led by Gagik Tsarukian, a member of parliament and one of the richest and most powerful men in Armenia, announced it was launching a programme for developing villages.

On the grounds that drought had prevented peasants from storing seeds, Tsarukian's party began distributing winter wheat and potatoes in ten regions of Armenia. Bargavach Hayastan also launched a programme of providing free medical services for the residents of these regions.

Pensioner Marusya Karapetian who lives in Aparan 60 kilometres northwest of Yerevan is delighted.

"Neither my husband nor I have seen a doctor for 15 years,” she said excitedly. “We were dying of pain but we did not have enough money to visit a doctor. Tsarukian is a good man. He is treating us medically and he is giving out potatoes so at least we have something to plant."

Tsarukisan’s political opponents are already attacking his initiatives. Member of parliament Shavarsh Kocharian charged, "Hungry people will swear by the name of the person who helps them. Of course, they will vote for the man who helps them. Everything has been very well thought out.”

Tsarukian responded in an interview on public television, "They are just condemning a person who is getting things done. You need to work, to present your programme to voters, learn their opinion and only then can you start counting how many votes you’ll get."

His other initiatives have included sowing wheat and the setting up of a fund for impoverished students. And all his charitable activities are getting generous television coverage

Other political leaders have been employing their own television channels to whip up support.

Tigran Karapetian, chairman of ALM holding company and chairman of the People's Party, has been using ALM television for four years to promote his own charitable initiatives. The slogan "Be good to people at all cost” sounds out from television screens with an image of Karapetian and soulful music. The channel declares that his activities are private and not political.

In a programme entitled Music Box and funded by Karapetian, children from villages are given the opportunity to perform on television, irrespective of their singing or reading abilities.

Karapetian has also been organising trips for provincial residents, mainly pensioners and the poor, in minibuses to visit Lake Sevan and other sights. All the excursions are scrupulously covered by the television station, which presents Karapetian as a "saviour with a big heart and a kind person".

"As a private person, I have given 3,000 dentures to pensioners and spectacles for those with poor eyesight," declared Karapetian.

Stepan Zakarian, a member of the Justice faction in parliament, roundly condemns Karapetian’s activities.

"Tigran Karapetian has transformed the whole election process into a farce,” he said.

Zakarian has also criticised defence minister - and possible future president - Serzh Sarkisian for his involvement in opening a water supply system in the village of Tsakhkahovit last November instead of dealing with his defence portfolio.

“Instead of thinking day and night about how to increase our country's military budget, the defence minister opened this water system. In the meantime, Azerbaijan's military budget is ten times as large as ours,” he said.

The governing Republican Party of Armenia has also been engaged in controversial charitable initiatives, presenting provincial educational centres with computers and laboratory equipment.

But the party spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov denies it has anything to do with the election campaign.

"This programme is just aimed at improving the quality of education. We started it in 2006," he said.

It is hard to distinguish between genuine charity and political exploitation of voters. Armenian political figures have begun their charitable efforts six months before campaigning is allowed officially, enabling them to present it as not being connected to the coming poll.

Samvel Nikoyan, a leading member of the Republican Party, said that he disapproves of the charitable initiatives, in particular the distribution of potatoes and wheat, but there is no way of legally preventing it.

"I am afraid that a political and ideological contest will become one for the distribution of seeds," he said.

Armen Rustamian, a leading member of the Dashnaktsutiun party, said, "If people get potatoes and go to the elections with them, these people will have a potato government and a potato democracy."

Marianna Grigorian and Gayane Abrahamian are reporters for in Yerevan.

Azerbaijan, Armenia
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