By Ruzanna Stepanian and Nane Atshemian
Armen Sargsian has not repaired a single street in nearly a decade but is supremely confident of his reelection as mayor of Agarak, Armenia’s most remote town located on the Iranian border. “I’m no worse than the other candidates,” he explained ahead of local elections that will take place in Agarak as well as most towns and villages across five Armenian provinces on Sunday.
Most local communities in other parts of the country have already elected their administrations or will do so later this month. The nationwide polls are effectively boycotted by the Armenian opposition which says they can not be free and fair as long as President Robert Kocharian is in power. The ongoing race is thus a largely intra-government affair, with virtually all major candidates loyal to the authorities in Yerevan.
Sargsian, for example, is affiliated with Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party, while his two challengers represent parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian’s Orinats Yerkir Party and another, smaller pro-establishment group. But party affiliations do not count for much in small towns and villages. Far more important is a candidate’s government connections and control of local election commissions -- the vital ingredients of chronic vote manipulation in Armenia. Persisting voter apathy only makes it easier.
The voter turnout in the elections already held in Yerevan has been well below 50 percents. Provincial residents should have even stronger reason to be cynical about government. Armenia may have seen robust economic growth for the past ten years, but it has mostly benefited Yerevan which increasingly contrasts with the rest of the country. In Agarak, about 400 kilometers southeast of the capital, it is practically impossible to find any signs of betterment, with unemployment remaining extremely and streets as potholed as ever.
For impoverished Agarak residents, the election is a rare chance to have something more tangible than a say in local governance. “Of course, I will take part in the elections,” said one middle-aged man. “Incidentally, I had a heart surgery two months ago. I approached the municipality and they will probably provide me with financial assistance.”
But a much more common form of election-related “assistance” is vote bribes ranging from $5 to $10. Although such bribes are becoming an increasingly important feature of Armenian elections, there are still many people refusing to sell their votes for a pittance. A woman in the nearby town of Meghri, said her family has received such an offer from the incumbent Mayor Mikael Harutiunian who is seeking a third term in office.
“They bribe people with cash, flour and other stuff,” she said. “They sent a man to our house as well. But I told him that my home has never seen any indecency.”
“We don’t have a mayor,” she snapped. “There is only the shadow of a mayor. How can he be not ashamed of seeking reelection again.? It’s a mafia, real mafia.”
“People get elected only for their own benefit,” said another Meghri voter. “We have had many mayors but nothing has changed in our town. The roads remain potholed and everything is neglected.”
Allegations of vote buying are also at the center of the election campaign in Masis, a town 20 kilometers south of Yerevan. Its Republican mayor, Sash Hakobian, is challenged by the former chief of the local police, Rafik Mkrtchian. “The election will be unfair. All the commissions have been bought by Mr. Hakobian,” claimed Mkrtchian. “And if you pay a person 3,000 drams ($7) they will vote for Hakobian because they can feed their children for three days with that money.”
But the mayor denied handing out vote bribes and planning to rig the vote. “I am not going to give anyone a penny,” he told RFE/RL. “I have only one objective: to win by a large margin.”
Campaigning in rural areas of the southern Ararat region has been less tense. Not least because in most local villages only one candidate, usually the incumbent village chief, is in the running.
Hakob Dallakian has governed the wine-growing village of Getapnya since 1991 and wants to stay on for another three-year term. “I haven’t done anything particular for the village,” admitted Dallakian. “I am only now starting do to things like bringing gas supplies here. But I am devoted to the village.”
Villagers, Dallakian claimed, will reelect him simply because they know him very well. “If I go to, say, Sarkis and tell him to elect me, he won’t refuse. He already knows whom to vote for,” he said.
But Dallakian’s pro-opposition challenger, Tadevos Aleksanian, strongly disagreed. “In essence, all the parties have given their seats [in the local election commission] to the village chief, instead of appointing their members,” he said. “Why? Because they are preparing for falsifications.”
“For example, one woman was appointed [as commission member] by Dashnaktsutyun, but she has no idea what Dashnaktsutyun is,” added Aleksanian.
Voter turnouts in Armenian villages have traditionally been higher than in urban communities. As one elderly resident of another Ararat village, Ghukasavan, explained, this is so not only because villagers are more susceptible to government pressure. “I don’t have to vote,” he said. “But I say to myself, ‘Well, I don’t have other things to do either, so let me go to the polls.’ But then again, who cares about our choice?”