BY CHRISTIAN GARBIS
The Yerevan municipal elections are right around the corner, scheduled for May 5. Many political parties that are in opposition to the government or still on the fence are putting their faith in these elections, hoping that democracy will work in their favor this time around and system-wide reform will begin in Yerevan. Onlookers from thousands of miles away will be eager to see the election results and make their judgments about political successes and failures accordingly. And that’s what is so daunting.
When studying the comments section of several articles written about Armenian politics in the Weekly, it’s clear that readers fall into two distinct camps—those who side with the opposition and thus the importance of the role of democracy in the development of society, and those who are staunchly, even suspiciously, loyal to the government and choose to ignore or downplay legitimate criticisms. The latter group seems to believe that the democratic system is equally transparent as those of nations in the West, for instance the United States. While in America the presidential vote is determined by the number of electoral votes won, the popular vote is largely symbolic. In many still-budding democracies, like Armenia, it is the popular vote that counts.
Despite monitoring efforts by European structures like the OSCE and the pretense of transparency, it has been very easy—not to mention essential—to falsify the vote in order to retain power in nearly every election. Not only are games played at the polling stations (forging signatures on voter lists, ballot stuffing, bribing, carousel voting, harassment), but numbers are undoubtedly being conjured behind closed doors at the Central Election Commission (CEC). Naturally, this cannot be proven for certain since the CEC ultimately reports to the president, just as all state bodies do.
In other words, the conclusion that the candidate or party that acquires the most votes is the real winner is a naive sentiment for the simple fact that democracy and the rule of law are not allowed to function properly so long as the president of Armenia does not value that system of governance. And I don’t only mean Serge Sarkisian; -his two predecessors also behaved essentially as dictators. The president has complete control over all governmental agencies and institutions, and ultimately has the final say as to how something will play out. If governmental corruption, for instance, is to be stamped out, he must have the will to do it—and not only the prime minister, who clearly doesn’t or else is powerless to do so. The judiciary likewise reports to the president; it can act independently in low-profile cases where private interests are not at stake. When the president wishes for a ruling to be made one way or another, the judge holding the verdict is obliged to carry out his wishes, or be dismissed.
The CEC is no exception to the rule. The head of the commission also caters to the whims, or rather the shrewd planning, of the president. In other words, the “official results” of the elections cannot be taken at face value as being legitimate and a just expression of will by the people. The doctrine of legitimacy is prescribed by the president of Armenia alone.
These authorities will do anything to retain power. The Yerevan municipality, which is controlled by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, has been very busy with various community renovation and landscaping projects, laying down fresh asphalt on streets and courtyard driveways, replacing curbstones, and repairing sidewalks. Although it is their responsibility to maintain the city’s streets, they wait until the last minute before election day to accomplish the work, thereby demonstrating a semblance of attentiveness while earning votes. On election day, it’s safe to assume that the usual methods of vote buying and intimidation will be deployed. After all, it’s a normal practice.
Sunday’s vote will be falsified again simply because the authorities can get away with it, as was made quite obvious in February’s presidential elections, while managing to gain praise from Russia, Europe and the United States in the aftermath.
And when communities in the diaspora continue to ignore violations of democratic values by blindly embracing the outcome of the vote, despite any blatant flaws that are revealed, the Armenian citizenry is let down knowing that its compatriots based abroad are unsupportive of its plight.
Until the Armenian nation fully embraces democracy, the same free and fair elections that Western nations covet as the purest demonstration of freedom cannot be held. The determination is necessary, along with the much-needed collective consensus on the vote from the Armenian Diaspora. This time around, it is vital for Armenian communities worldwide, which have expressed their concern and support for Armenia’s freedom, to meticulously track violations that will be reported by the Armenian press throughout the day (notable news sources with live updates include Hetq Online, A1+, and Civilnet) before rushing to judgment on the outcome of the vote. Two hundred observers from the diaspora are rumored to be monitoring the municipal elections. Their crucial findings will need to be considered quite carefully in determining whether democracy in Armenia can indeed flourish, as it should.