The Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) insisted on Tuesday that the controversial provision by a company belonging to its leader Gagik Tsarukian of tractors to rural communities across the country does not amount to vote buying.
Tsarukian has unveiled dozens of such tractors during nationwide election campaign rallies. His critics, notably the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, have cried foul, saying that the practice violates the Electoral Code that bans election contenders from providing any material assistance or services to voters.
The practice has also caught the attention of an international election observation mission deployed in Armenia by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In a pre-election report issued on Friday, the mission cited the chief executive of Tsarukian’s Multi Group holding company as claiming that “the distribution of tractors is part of a business project.”
“The Prosperous Armenia headquarters issued a statement that no tractors were being donated and that the party was not implementing any charitable programs,” said the report. Nevertheless, the OSCE observers concluded that Tsarukian is making tractors available to farmers “de facto as part of the party’s campaign.”
Hmayak Hovannisian, a well-known politician whose name is ninth on the BHK’s list of election candidates, did not deny the connection between the scheme and the parliamentary race. But he said Tsarukian is simply fulfilling his campaign pledge to set up nationwide tractor “stations” that will lease agricultural vehicles to struggling farmers.
“Against the backdrop of attempts to bribe voters, there is a force that is trying to prove in practice that it means business,” Hovannisian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Regardless of whether or not voters will vote for the BHK, those tractor centers are being created right now. So our platform is being put into practice.”
“People are sick and tired of empty promises and want political forces to prove their statements with actions,” he said. “And so Gagik Tsarukian is responding to people’s expectations.”
Tsarukian sparked similar controversy also in the run-up to the last parliamentary elections held in May 2007. He launched the BHK’s activities in late 2006 with the distribution of large-scale relief aid to farmers and provision of medical and other services to urban residents.
The tycoon, who is one of the country’s wealthiest businesspeople, has personally condemned vote buying during the current campaign, urging Armenians not to sell their votes for cash. His political aides insist that the BHK is genuinely interested in preventing this and other types of vote manipulation.
One of them, Naira Zohrabian, on Tuesday reaffirmed the party’s plans to install video cameras in all of Armenia’s 2,000 or so polling stations on election day. Zohrabian said BHK proxies will film the entire process of voting and ballot counting there in order to preclude or document possible irregularities. “We consider this a very important oversight mechanism,” Zohrabian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Zohrabian added that the BHK’s campaign headquarters has already begun distributing cameras to its local chapters. She also said that the video material will be accessible for the public after the elections. “Naturally, no electoral violation would be hushed up,” she said.