The opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) accused the authorities on Thursday of doing nothing to stop what it called widespread vote bribes handed out by pro-government candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
“We get many reports that citizens are told … ‘if you vote for us, we will pay your utility bills,’” said Levon Zurabian, the deputy chairman of the party headed by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.
Zurabian claimed that a group of voters mistakenly visited the HAK headquarters in Yerevan this week to sign up for such payments promised to them. “They said, ‘Is this where we should register for having our gas bills paid?’ … It means that in some place near our office such a registration is conducted,” he said.
The opposition leader went on to complain that law-enforcement authorities are not cracking down on the illegal practice that has also been reported by the Armenian press. “The entire [law-enforcement] system protects those who distribute vote bribes against us,” he said. “The authorities can end vote bribes tomorrow if they make such a decision today.”
Varuzhan Hoktanian, head of Armenia’s leading anti-corruption watchdog affiliated with Transparency International, added his voice to the criticism. “These reports lead us to conclude that vote bribes are mainly paid by the ruling party,” Hoktanian told RFE/RL’ Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“Given the fact that the law-enforcement system and the courts serve the ruling party, ordinary citizens prefer to steer clear of exposing them,” he said. “This is a really serious problem.”
Also alleging vote buying was Artsvik Minasian, Armenia’s environment minister and a senior member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), President Serzh Sarkisian’s junior coalition partner. “Various candidates or individuals have promised money or services,” he said.
Minasian was careful not to point the finger at Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK) or any other political group. “Let me not name them because if I name names now I will have to come up with proof,” he said.
Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General insisted that it is looking into growing media reports about vote buying that primarily implicate the HHK. But it reported no criminal cases opened to date.
So far the authorities have only moved to tackle vote buying by businessman Gagik Tsarukian whose alliance is one of the election favorites. The Central Election Commission (CEC) on Wednesday warned him to stop promising money and other material aid to voters on the campaign trail.
Tsarukian continued to give such promises as he took his campaign to the Armavir province west of Yerevan on Thursday. But in an apparent response to the CEC warning, he told voters that his donations will be delivered after the April 2 elections.
“Misha, Tsarukian is promising you in front of so many people: come visit after April 2 and you’ll get a piece of agricultural equipment for the village from me,” the tycoon told a local farmer during a campaign rally. “But only after the elections so that there is no connection with the elections,” he added to rapturous applause.
Tsarukian also told one of his associates to draw up a list of equipment needed by an Armavir school. It too will be donated after the elections, he said.
The CEC could not be immediately reached for comment on whether or not Tsarukian is still violating Armenia’s Electoral Code that explicitly bans provision of money, goods or services to voters.