Businessman Gagik Tsarukian derided on Monday warnings by the Central Election Commission (CEC) that his regular pledges to give impoverished voters cash and other material aid amount to illegal vote buying.
Armenia’s Electoral Code explicitly forbids political groups and individual election candidates from providing or even promising money, food, consumer goods or services to people during election campaigns.
Tsarukian, whose alliance is one of the main contenders in the Armenian parliamentary race, has been inundated with pleas for such aid since he began campaigning for the April 2 elections a week ago. He publicly pledged to grant those requests at his first campaign meetings held in the northern Tavush province last Tuesday.
The CEC chairman, Tigran Mukuchian, warned on Wednesday that Tsarukian is breaking the law. The tycoon responded by telling supporters that donations promised to them will be delivered only after the elections. Mukuchian insisted afterwards that even this constitutes a violation of the Electoral Code provisions banning vote buying.
“There is no applicant whom I haven’t helped,” Tsarukian said at a campaign rally held in Aparan, a small town in central Armenia. “But Mr. Mukuchian has issued a law [telling me] ‘don’t give people promises.’ People asked me and I said: ‘No problem, go to this particular place after April 2.’ But he says ‘no, a promise is also a vote bribe.’”
“Well, my dear, let the people die. I’m not going to promise anything. Mr. Mukuchian has banned me from doing that,” he told hundreds of supporters.
Tsarukian referred a middle-aged woman in Aparan to Mukuchian when she approached him to ask for aid after his speech. “This woman will now go to Mukuchian and take the child with her,” he told aides. “She’ll say, ‘Mr. Mukuchian, you’re not letting Tsarukian help me.’”
“As soon as he writes on the paper that ‘Tsarukian, you can do that’ you will come to me and I will solve your problem. You understand?” he said, turning to the woman.
“Yes, I understand,” she replied. “I love you, Mr. Tsarukian.”
Tsarukian heavily relied on such handouts during his past election campaigns, triggering opposition allegations of vote buying. His Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the dominant member of the tycoon’s bloc, finished second in the last two parliamentary elections held in 2012 and 2007.
The BHK claims to be in opposition to President Serzh Sarkisian’s government. Tsarukian has been careful not to openly criticize the government, however, raising questions about his opposition credentials.
Campaigning in Aragatsotn on Monday, Tsarukian again deplored the socioeconomic hardship in Armenia but avoided blaming the government for it, let alone calling for regime change. He only said vaguely that “those responsible for the bad situation in the country must go.”