When you visit Armenia, you hear stories. Good stories and sad ones. Stories that inspire hope, others that fill you with despair.
One story I heard from a family friend—let’s call him Armen—on my most recent visit just after the May 2012 parliamentary elections has been occupying my mind for some days. Armen is a hard-working, humble man. He’ll make you feel immediately welcome and share bread with you, no questions asked. He is what you love about Armenia. Armen is also a member of an opposition party—a loyal rank and file type of member who’s in it because he believes.
Armen’s son and daughter-in-law live with him and his wife. His daughter-in-law is a teacher at a public school, and is the family’s main bread-winner with a stable job, or, to put it more accurately, a stable job that comes at a cost. Before the parliamentary elections, Armen’s daughter-in-law and all other teachers at the school received instructions to strictly vote for the Republican Party of Armenia. They were also “advised” to recruit at least five family members or friends each to vote for the Republican Party. On election day last May, Armen was the only member of his family to vote for the party of his choice.
Armenia is on the verge of elections again. That ultimate test for whether a nation is mature enough to exercise its right to vote and whether its leadership is democratic enough to afford that right. So far we have, by and large, failed that test. Previous elections have been marred by opposition candidates crying foul. We’ve had mass protests and we’ve seen, more than once, the army deployed to quell these protests. We’ve witnessed arrests, casualties, even deaths. Vote-buying, ballot-stuffing, voter intimidation, and the use of administrative resources by the authorities have been a hallmark of elections in our country.
Ahead of its sixth presidential elections, the country finds itself in a “peculiar” situation: Three of the four main opposition forces represented in the National Assembly—the Prosperous Armenia Party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), and the Armenian National Congress—have decided to not field candidates. The Prosperous Armenia Party provided no explanation for its decision, while Ter-Petrossian of the Armenian National Congress cited his age. The ARF pointed to the “shadowy” and pre-determined nature of elections in Armenia as its reason to not put forth its own candidate.
With these parties not participating, contending incumbent President Serge Sarkisian are seven candidates: former foreign affairs minister, Raffi Hovannisian; former prime minister, Hrant Bagratian; former foreign affairs minister of Nagorno-Karabagh, Arman Melikian,; chairman of the National Self-Determination Union, Paruyr Hayrikian; leader of the National Accord Party, Aram Harutiunian,; a (so-called) specialist in epic studies, Vartan Sedrakian; and director of Radio Hye, Andrias Ghukasyan.
Unheard-of candidates, hunger strikes, and talk of withdrawals have come to characterize these elections, not the competition of programs or ideas. Many don’t believe that any of the above candidates can be a serious challenger to Sarkisian’s re-election. Read any Armenian newspaper today and you’ll see an overwhelming consensus that the country is headed towards five more years of Sarkisian.
That the country’s main opposition forces have decided not to field candidates has undoubtedly had its impact on creating a competition vacuum in the country. In reality, however, the conditions for such a competition vacuum were created prior to the official decision by these parties to not contest. Would these parties have chosen the same path had they believed they stood a genuine chance to participate in truly fair and competitive elections? Unlikely.
The monopolization of power by the authorities has rendered political competition in Armenia impermissible. It has been practiced, bluntly or subtly, on several occasions, and every opposition party in Armenia has come to bear its brunt in one way or another. The ARF had its share of the National Assembly votes slashed from 13 percent in 2007 to 5.6 percent in 2012 after leaving the coalition in 2009 (in opposition to the signing of the Armenia-Turkey protocols). The most high-profile member of the Prosperous Armenia Party and potential presidential candidate, Vartan Oskanian, found himself fending off money laundering charges after he became a tad too critical of the government. And Armenian National Congress’ Levon Ter-Petrossian knows too well what it means to challenge the government first as ruling president and then as an opposition presidential candidate.
This monopolization of power has affected the attitude of Armenia’s voters, too. According to Gallup polling, as little as 18 percent of Armenia’s voters have confidence in the honesty of elections in the country. Perhaps it is due to this disillusionment that when faced with threats or offered bribes, Armenia’s voters have chosen to give up their vote—their ultimate right as citizens of a free country, their most important responsibility towards their country, and the most powerful tool they have to determine the course of its future.
In two weeks, Armenians go to the polls again amid widespread loss of faith both among the voters and political forces in the meaning of it all. Perhaps no election in the country’s history has emphasized the lack of confidence in the electoral process as much. Democratic elections have two key ingredients: people who understand their rights and exercise them, and leaders who respect the rights and the will of the people. When at least one of these ingredients is in place, there is hope for democracy to take root in a country. It is only when such a day comes, that we can expect an end to pretend, pre-determined, meaningless elections in Armenia.