An opposition lawmaker has claimed that a new government-proposed legislative amendment limiting the ability of educational and medical workers to campaign for a candidate during elections still leaves room for foul play.
For years workers at public schools, kindergartens and state-run health institutions in Armenia have been regarded as key agents of influence for the government during elections.
In the run-up to last year’s parliamentary elections a local civic group said its activists posing as representatives of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) had telephoned 136 schools and kindergarten chiefs across Armenia, learning that 114 of them had drawn up lists of children’s parents as well as schoolteachers and kindergarten staff who pledged to vote for the HHK.
The Union of Informed Citizens (UIC) said the lists were submitted to local government bodies or HHK campaign offices and also publicized audio of those phone conversations.
The HHK admitted that many school principals participated in its election campaign. But it claimed that they did so “beyond their work hours and work duties.” The party headed by President Serzh Sarkisian also denied that they illegally pressurized their staffs and children’s parents.
While the authorities failed to act upon the information reported by the civic group, 30 school principals filed a libel suit against the UIT and one of its leaders, Daniel Ioannisian, demanding a formal apology and some $125,000 in damages for the information which they said compromised their “honor and dignity.” Eventually, they dropped their lawsuits that drew strong criticism from the Armenian opposition and civil society, but were defended by the HHK.
Armenia’s election law totally prohibits judges, employees of law-enforcement agencies and servicemen from campaigning during elections. Amendments sought by the government also prohibit healthcare workers, teaching staffs at universities, schools and kindergartens as well as civil servants from campaigning during their working hours or in their professional capacity.
During a debate on the relevant Election Code amendments at the parliamentary standing committee on state and legal issues on Thursday MP Gevork Petrosian from the opposition Tsarukian faction expressed his concern that the measure will not solve the matter, calling for a total ban on election campaigning by school principals and teachers and healthcare workers.
“If adopted in its current form the Election Code will leave room for the all-out use of teaching staffs in electoral processes allegedly outside working hours,” Petrosian claimed.
Deputy Justice Minister Artur Hovannisian, who participated in the debate from the government, explained that totally preventing teachers and doctors from campaigning during elections will restrict their constitutional rights. “This would limit their basic rights enshrined in the Constitution, and we can’t do that,” the official said.
Gevork Kostanian, the head of the committee, further argued that prohibiting teachers and doctors from campaigning for candidates in their professional capacity should dispel the opposition concerns. “In other words, teachers or health workers cannot phone children’s parents or their patients in their professional capacity and ask them for something [related to elections] because they won’t have any grounds for that. They may do so only if they are, for example, friends,” he said.
The amendments were eventually endorsed by the committee dominated by the HHK and were included in the parliament agenda. The bill in question also suggests criminalizing the use of administrative resources during elections, making it punishable by imprisonment for 3-5 years. Amendments to the Electoral Code also provide for criminal liability for mediation in vote buying, which will be punishable by imprisonment for 1-5 years.