As voters head to the polls in Armenia’s parliamentary elections, they may be thinking less about politics and more about their pocketbooks.
Vote-buying has long been a staple of politics in Armenia, where parties and politicians offer few inspiring choices and voters see little reason to support one over the other.
“They come from all the party headquarters and quote a sum, and we wait to see who offers the highest sum so we can choose him,” said Rima Kirakosyan, a resident of Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city where the official poverty level stands at about 45 percent. Kirakosyan, who has lived in temporary housing ever since a 1988 earthquake devastated the city, joked in an interview with EurasiaNet.org that her neighbors are planning to organize “an auction to raise the rates of the election bribes.”
In this election, in which the ruling Republican Party of Armenia is expected to win its fifth consecutive parliamentary victory, vote-buying seems to be getting even more blatant. One senior party official acknowledged that voters were being paid, but insisted that it was merely a “donation.”
“People can take it and go make a choice according to their conscience,” the official, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Hermine Naghdalyan, told journalists on March 31.
The problem has become so pronounced that international organizations and ambassadors have called attention to it. “We are aware of and concerned by allegations of voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties,” the United States embassy and European Union delegation said in a joint statement March 29. They called on “relevant law-enforcement authorities and electoral institutions to implement existing laws in an unbiased and credible manner.”
Voters say that the bribes offered by candidates also have increased in this election, from a previous standard of 5,000 drams to 10,000, a little more than $20. And they are taking more steps to make sure they get a return on their investment.
“It is even more dangerous that now they start to apply mechanisms of controlling the vote so that those who distribute election bribes can be sure that the bribe taker will vote as requested,” said Varuzhan Hoktanyan, project director at Transparency International’s Anticorruption Center. Those mechanisms include telling voters to take a photo of their ballot or otherwise proving that they voted for the right candidate.
As Armenia’s economy continues to stagnate, vote-buying has become “increasingly influential,” Hoktanyan said. “In these conditions, vote buying can, indeed, play a serious role.”
The practice first rose to prominence in Armenia’s 2007 elections. In that vote, the Prosperous Armenia party was particularly noteworthy for its pre-election generosity, with villages offered inducements ranging from potatoes to ambulances, the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Group noted in its final report.
In 2012, the government toughened the laws against election bribery; it is now punishable by a fine of up to 700,000 drams (about $1,440) or up to five years in prison. But even as the problem continues to get more entrenched, many complain that the authorities seem little interested in pursuing the many credible allegations of vote-buying.
“Large-scale reports and signs of vote buying have been ignored,” said Artur Sakunts, a prominent activist who heads the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly’s Vanadzor-based office, in an interview with EurasiaNet.org. “It seems that vote buying is not considered a dangerous crime, the impression is that an election bribe is just a campaign technique.”
For their part, police respond that it is difficult to detect and prosecute cases of vote-buying. “Without the help of the public, law-enforcement agencies cannot prevent [election] bribes,” said a senior police official, Hovhannes Kocharyan, in a February meeting with civil society representatives.
Sometimes when the authorities get reports of bribes being distributed, “the police arrive [and] it turns out that citizens are just settling their debts amongst themselves,” Kocharyan said. “What can we do in cases like that?”
But police often intimidate those who make vote-buying allegations into retracting their accusations, said Daniel Ioannisyan, a representative of Independent Observer, a civil society organization monitoring the elections.
“When citizens tell media that they were offered election bribes, even clearly giving the name of the candidate that offered the bribes, after their visits to the police station it turned out that there was no such bribe,” Ioannisyan said. “Meanwhile, it is police who are supposed to gather evidence. But every time it turns out that the citizen has ‘made a mistake’ and that no bribe has been offered.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a freelance reporter and editor in Yerevan.