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Sweeteners for Votes in Armenia
Anahit Bakhshyan of the opposition Heritage Party with a document that she alleges is being used to gather data on potential voters. (Photo: Gayane Mkrtchyan)
Although campaigning for Armenia’s parliamentary election officially began on April 8, political parties have been handing out gifts to potential voters for months.
Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan said on March 23 that the authorities were intent on ensuring a fair vote on May 6.
“As opposition representatives acknowledge, a civil society has emerged which will demand fairness during the election. That is of course the most important guarantee that the electoral process will be free and fair,” he said.
All parties, both pro-government and opposition, are using billboard and television advertising to promise to build a free and fair society if they win.
Experts say informal campaigning has been less than fair, with well-heeled parties handing out coffee, vodka, perfume, satellite dishes and more to entice people into voting for them.
The impact these gifts could have disputed, with some saying 30 per cent of the electorate could be swayed by them and others saying very few will be affected.
Lusine Mkrtchyan, from Echmiadzin, some 15 kilometres from the capital Yerevan, said campaigners from the Rule of Law party were going door to door in her neighbourhood asking people to become members. If they signed up, they were promised mobile phones, she said.
Rule of Law is headed by Artur Baghdasaryan, secretary of the president’s Security Council, and together with the Republican Party and Prosperous Armenia forms the ruling coalition.
Heghine Bisharyan, a Rule of Law member of parliament, denied the party was handing out mobile phones, but said there was nothing wrong with giving voters food, alcohol and other gifts.
In Gyumri, a city 100 kilometres northwest of Yerevan, many residents say they were approached in February and March by purported members of the Prosperous Armenia party, who promised TV satellite dishes or – in nearby villages – four sacks of coal if they joined the party.
“A young man came and said that if we joined Prosperous Armenia, we’d get satellite dishes and that we’d always be able to go to them for help. I was amazed. How much money have these people got? A dish costs 150 dollars,” Azniv, a pensioner from Gyumri who did not want to give her last name, said.
Lusine Grigoryan, another Gyumri resident, said her family accepted a satellite dish but still had no intention of voting for the party.
Prosperous Armenia spokesman Baghdasar Mheryan denied the party had given out gifts in Gyumri.
Harutyun Hambardzumyan, of the non-governmental organisation The Choice is Yours, which has monitored gift-giving by political parties, said the practice could alter the eventual outcome by as much as 30 per cent.
He said such actions were clearly banned under Armenia’s election law.
“Article 18, point seven of the electoral code forbids candidates and parties – personally or by other means – to “give or promise citizens money, products, favours or other items free of charge or at a discount, or to offer them services during election campaigning,” he said. “Loopholes in the electoral code mean parties are able to do this under the cover of charitable activity.”
Styopa Safaryan, a parliamentarian from the opposition Heritage party, agreed that the legislation covering electoral spending needed to change.
“The law must ban the dispensing of charity for several months before the start of an official election campaign,” he said. “I am not against charitable giving, but it shouldn’t happen close to elections. It also comes down to the ethical standards of parties themselves – they can refrain from charitable activity for this period.”
There are also allegations that voters are being offered cash in hand as well as gifts, and the going rate is put at between 5,000 and 10,000 drams, 13 to 26 US dollars, per vote. Accepting a bribe for one’s vote is a serious offence which carries a fine of at least 41,000 dollars or up to three years in prison.
Anahit Bakhshyan of the Heritage party, who is standing for election in Yerevan’s Shengavit constituency, has accused her rivals of offering bribes of between 8,000 and 13,000 drams to voters.
She has obtained a form which she says the governing Republican Party handed out to schoolteachers so that they could gather information about the parents of pupils at their schools.
Police in Shengavit say they are investigating Bakhshyan’s complaints.
Parties in the ruling coalition have denied the existence of these forms.
“It’s a complete lie. I don’t want to comment further. I don’t know what she [Bakhshyan] has in her possession, but if she thinks she’s right, she should go to court,” Prosperous Armenia secretary Aram Safaryan said.
Republican Party parliamentarian Artak Zakaryan said none of its campaigners had made payments to prospective voters.
As for the allegations against Prosperous Armenia, member of parliament Naira Zohrabyan denied that her party was doing anything unlawful, insisting that all charitable gifts were dispensed personally by its leader Gagik Tsarukyan, in his capacity as a businessmen. She added that Tsarukyan would continue doing so “whether you like it or not”.
Armen Badalyan, a regular commentator on electoral law, said the distinction meant the party was technically within the law.
“Charitable activity is being conducted by a charity fund and not the party, so there’s no breach of the law here. But of course this is how they incentivise people. It’s a form of campaigning that sways undecided or disillusioned voters,” he said.
At the same time, Badalyan doubted that such actions would have a substantial effect on the outcome of the election, as he estimated that only five per cent of people would change their vote in return for inducements.
“There’s only one method of campaigning, and that is to conduct a good election campaign which people will view as is more important than some 13 dollars, which isn’t going to change anyone’s life,” he said.
More broadly, commentators say there is little that can be done to stem corruption around elections until people become more civic-minded and better off.
Yervand Bozoyan, head of the Dialogue think tank, said, “In advanced countries, election bribes don’t have any effect since people are well-provided for and aren’t interested in presents or money.”
Opposition activists have also raised concerns about how the electoral rolls have been compiled for the forthcoming ballot. The current list shows a seven per cent increase on the number of voters on the books in the presidential election four years ago.
Safaryan of the Heritage Party has requested the prosecution to look into whether the electoral roll meets legal standards. Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who heads another opposition party, the Armenian National Congress, told Radmila Šekerinska, the head of the OSCE’s election monitoring mission, that hundreds of thousands of the people listed were not resident in Armenia.
Hovhannes Kocharyan, who heads the police’s passport and visa department, put the increase down to a rise in the adult population coupled with more accurate statistics.
Meeting students in the city of Tsakhkadzor on April 9, President Serzh Sargsyan said people should not be removed from the electoral rolls just because they had left the country, and inclusion on the list did not mean they would necessarily vote.
“I think that everyone who’s talking about this should wait and see how things look after the elections,” he said. “We’ve published the electoral roll on the internet, and if there are any problems, then anyone who harbours any doubts should… help us make corrections to it.”
Safaryan said the authorities should carry out such checks themselves rather than suggest that the opposition spend time doing so.
“The state’s responsibility for running free and fair elections has sadly fallen to us,” he added.
Gayane Mkrtchyan is a journalist with the online publication ArmeniaNow.com.
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