Armenia’s ongoing local election season is exposing the degradation of its democratic institutions as well as the weakness of its civil society. The polls, effectively boycotted by the Armenian opposition, are essentially an intra-government affair, with rival wealthy individuals seeking to further their business interests through control of local government bodies. Their handling by the authorities bodes ill for the freedom and fairness of the crucial constitutional referendum due in November.
The electoral process affecting the vast majority of the country’s 930 rural and urban communities began this spring and will peak in October. The most important of those communities are the ten administrative districts in the capital, Yerevan. Most of them have already elected their chief executives and city councilmen.
As was the case in the past, Armenia’s leading opposition parties have shown little interest in the local races. Opposition leaders claim that they cannot be democratic as long as President Robert Kocharian and his allies remain in power. They also say that local communities do not have any significant powers in Armenia’s highly centralized system of governance.
The only place where Armenia’s largest opposition group, the Justice bloc, has fielded a candidate so far was Yerevan’s central Kentron district, whose incumbent alderman, Gagik Beglarian, is a staunch Kocharian loyalist. Yet even there opposition leaders effectively avoided campaigning for their female candidate, Ruzan Khachatrian. She therefore had no chance to defeat her rival, who had the backing of the entire state apparatus and controlled the local election commissions. Official results of the September 25 ballot showed Beglarian winning 86% of the vote. Although the opposition candidate claimed that the race was decided by multiple voting and vote buying in some Kentron neighborhoods, election observers from the Council of Europe said they did not witness serious irregularities.
Commentators widely criticized the opposition’s indifference to the most important local poll. Even a leader of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) chided the opposition leaders for “throwing a teammate into the lion’s mouth.” Iravunk, a newspaper critical of the authorities, warned on September 27 that the opposition tactic had made it easier for the ruling regime to push through its controversial package of constitutional amendments at the November referendum. But another paper, Azg, pointed out that the newly elected or reelected local government chiefs will lack the motivation to strive for a “yes” vote at the referendum with the same zeal.
What ordinary Armenians think of the constitutional amendments is seen as secondary. The key factor is the authorities’ so-called “administrative resources” that have been heavily used in all Armenian elections over the past decade. Tactics include direct involvement of government and law-enforcement bodies in campaigning, aggressive televised propaganda, crude electoral fraud, and vote buying. The last technique is becoming the defining feature of Armenian local elections. The fact that their voter turnout is usually well below 50% makes the practice particularly effective.
Vote bribes are what apparently enabled a 26-year-old man, Mher Hovannisian, to get “elected” as alderman of Yerevan’s poorest district, Nubarashen, on September 18. The youngster’s main merit was the fact that his businessman father is a friend of one of Armenia’s most powerful “oligarchs,” Gagik Tsarukian. Local, mostly elderly voters admitted to journalists that they were paid 5,000 drams ($11) to vote for him.
The Nubarashen election followed a pattern that has taken root in most urban communities. They are typically run by wealthy government-connected individuals who hold sway in a particular area and are undeterred by their lack of constitutional powers (an elected prefect can be sacked by a government-appointed regional governor practically at will). Their affiliation with governing political parties (usually the HHK) is largely nominal and their bonds with senior government officials or millionaire “oligarchs” are much stronger. The key preoccupation of most community chiefs is to create favorable conditions for their and their cronies’ businesses. The government office also gives them additional protection against corrupt tax and law-enforcement bodies.
The local bosses primarily rely on their government connections and financial resources to win elections. Quasi-criminal elements often act as their foot soldiers, mobilizing, bribing, and bullying voters. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation, another pro-presidential party, has repeatedly expressed concern about the growing influence of what it calls “apolitical elements” in the country. One of its leaders warned in February of the possibility of armed clashes between rival clans during the local elections. As if to prove him right, on September 24 the mayor of a small town near Yerevan shot and killed a local businessman who had campaigned for his main election rival. The shooting took place on a street in broad daylight.
It is highly doubtful that Kocharian or his most powerful associate, Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, will take any action against the corrupt local clans. They are one of the pillars of Armenia’s deeply flawed political system. The ruling regime needs them more than any of the three parties represented in Kocharian’s government to rig presidential and parliamentary elections.
The fact that the increasingly entrenched clans are tightening their grip on local governments with little resistance from political parties, non-governmental organizations, and media speaks volumes about the state of civil society in Armenia. It also dims prospects for the country’s democratization. That most people do not care who runs their district or town and that some of them are ready to sell their votes should also be a cause for serious concern among those who promote political reform in Armenia.
(Iravunk, Azg, Haykakan Zhamanak, September 27; RFE/RL Armenia Report, February 21, September 19 and 26)