By Ruzanna Stepanian, Ruben Meloyan and Astghik Bedevian
The state human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, joined opposition candidates Friday in urging Armenians not to sell their votes during the upcoming presidential election, expressing concern about a practice that has become endemic over the past decade.
“I believe that vote buying is a phenomenon which can abort the establishment of democracy in Armenia,” said Harutiunian. “That is why I am calling on our citizens to be mindful of this and to avoid selling their votes.”
“Any political force which would come to power as a result of vote buying would never have a moral connection with the public, would never improve the socioeconomic situation, would never form a democratic system. It would always be interested in creating a system in which it would always be able to perpetuate its rule by buying votes,” he told a news conference.
The ombudsman’s warnings came amid similar concerns expressed by the main opposition presidential candidates. As was the case in the run-up to last May’s parliamentary elections, there are already media reports of government loyalists visiting citizens across the country and collecting their passport details, presumably to buy or steal their votes.
Vote buying was the main topic of former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian’s campaign speech in Charentsavan, an economically depressed town about 40 kilometers north of Yerevan. “Are they already collecting your passports?” he asked some 200 local residents attending his indoors rally.
“There quite a few people in Charentsavan who sold their votes [in the previous elections,]” said Baghdasarian. “I want to appeal to those people. What did they gain in return for vote bribes they got in May? Have their lives gotten better since then?”
“Those who plan to vote for money must realize that their and their family’s plight will only worsen,” he added.
Baghdasarian suggested at the same time that Charentsavan residents mired in poverty accept cash but still vote for a candidate other than Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. “The ballot is secret, isn’t it?” he argued.
“What if we get caught?” asked one man. “How will they catch you?” responded Baghdasarian.
In a related development, the campaign manager of another opposition contender, President Levon Ter-Petrosian, condemned on Friday Sarkisian’s December 4 decision to set up a special government body tasked with looking into written complaints and requests lodged by citizens. “The working group is part of the prime minister’s campaign team and comprises experienced state officials,” said Aleksandr Arzumanian.
Arzumanian alleged that the group’s mission is to address voters’ grievances in return for their pledge to vote for Sarkisian. He said as many as 10,000 Armenians have already applied to the body and asked it to provide them with financial assistance and jobs and to solve other socioeconomic problems facing them.
According to Arzumanian, application forms for such requests are being distributed to the population by young activists of a small pro-government party actively campaigning for Sarkisian’s victory in the February 19 election. The United National Liberal Party (MIAK) is led by an aide to the prime minister.
A spokesman for the Sarkisian campaign brushed aside Arzumanian’s claims. “The decision to form the working group had nothing to do with the elections,” Eduard Sharmazanov told RFE/RL. “Mr. Arzumanian’s statement is ridiculous and ludicrous … If they continue to spread lies, they will lose their 3-4 percent popular support.”
Asked why the government body was set up in the run-up to the presidential vote, Sharmazanov said: “The government is performing its constitutionally defined duties.”
The Sarkisian campaign has also been accused of vote buying by another major candidate, Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). Campaigning in the eastern Gegharkunik region on Thursday, Hovannisian warned local residents that the authorities plan to “hand out loads of cash” to voters in order to influence the election outcome.
“I swore [when joining Dashnaktsutyun] to sacrifice my life for the people, if need be,” he said in a campaign speech there. “We are not demanding your life. All we need is your honesty.”
(Photolur photo: Armen Harutiunian.)