Elections are underway in Armenia today. There is a huge political commotion surrounding these elections even though the outcome is close to certain. What really matters to the political class of Armenians is whether this election will get the coveted “free and fair” stamp of approval from international NGOs and international organizations.
Armenia has been struggling to combat corruption and raise its transparency rankings for years. On Tuesday, when Freedom House labeled Armenia’s Press as “Not Free,” people listened. Whether the response was that something had to be done or that any organization receiving USAID money should not be trusted depended on the person. While there are ideological differences between politicians, most of the difference really lies in whether someone is pro-government or pro-opposition.
There is a massive chasm between the government (i.e. The Republican Party) and the opposition (a combination of multiple parties led by the Heritage Party). This massive divide is not so much ideological but in tribe mentality. At a debate held by Civilitas, many representatives of parties agreed that most of the campaigning was not about the issues but about the people or the party. While there is some ideological divide (e.g. the Communist Party is against further Europeanization of Armenia and wants stronger ties with Russia), these come from parties that don’t have much voter support (e.g. only 5% of poll respondents said the Communists had the most convincing campaign). Of course, it’s very difficult to run a successful campaign if you’re not the Republicans (who can use government media to promote their party) or Prosperous Armenia (whose founder lists income of tens of millions of US dollars on his taxes, which some believe to be less than his actual income.) In the words of Wikipedia, the head of Prosperous Armenia has benefited well from the corruption as “he is seen as the most influential of Armenia’s government-connected ‘oligarchs.’”
The oligarch-based economy has been blasted by many Armenians. While GDP growth in the double digits has significantly strengthened Armenia’s standard of living and stability, that growth reversed directions with the recent global recession. In the first three months of 2012, 125,000 people left Armenia—most of them youth in search of jobs or higher income—which is a 5,000-person increase over the first three months of 2011. Youth unemployment is around 50%. A common line is that if you’re not politically well connected, you won’t be able to get a good job and you’ll end up using your university degree driving a taxi. Many of the entry-level civil service positions, key jobs to integrate youth into the government, pay a fifth of the average monthly salary of Armenia! There aren’t many options available for the young.
But, the young aren’t the only ones that vote. No matter how great the election debates organized by Civilitas are for the educated or those with internet access, so much of the country lives in impoverished villages that only receive one source of news: the government’s. These people, whose lives haven’t changed much since soviet times, often are willing to sell their vote for chickens. Whether they’re right or wrong to think that a few gifts are the most they can expect to receive from the political system, it severely weakens drives towards free and fair elections in Armenia.
Edit at 1:45pm local time: There’s already discussion of voting irregularities. The big one seems to be a situation of “disappearing ink” in people’s passports (the ink is supposed to disappear in 12 hours, not in 5 minutes. The ink is meant to ensure no one double votes). Other assorted irregularities are mentioned, but they’re mostly pretty minor except for possible cases of violence and expulsion against proxies (proxies are election monitors that are aligned with a particular party or candidates).
Read on to Election Results.