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Voter Apathy Appears Widespread on Eve of Parliamentary Poll

With just over a day left in Armenia's parliamentary campaign, many voters say that it will take more than promises of a strong army or increased pensions to get them to the polls on May 12. Some sociologists put the disinterest down to political parties' failure to use professional public relations techniques. Many parties, however, counter that they see no reason for experts to help them engage with voters.

Frustration with past elections, which many voters believe were rigged, appears to drive much of the apathy.

"No matter what happens, our life will not change. No matter who is elected or not elected, nothing can change," said 50-year-old Martin Hovhannisian, a former chemical engineer who now earns a living by driving a cab in one of Yerevan's suburbs. "As I see no prospects, I will not go to the polls. The elections are for officials and do not change anything in the lives of ordinary people."

Pensioner Margarit Minasian also plans to stay at home. She points at buses that brought students and people working for state-run organizations -- reportedly involuntarily -- to a Yerevan rally for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia.

"If everything is turned into theater and people try to show something using their strength, why should I believe in our tomorrow?" she sighed.

International observers have already noted this mood. During an April 27 press conference, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Armenia Office Head Vladimir Pryakhin stated that OSCE surveys indicate that more than half of Armenian voters do not want to participate in the elections.

"It is difficult for me to say why it is so, but the latest surveys show that 90 percent of eligible voters do not connect their and their families' future with the outcome of the upcoming elections," Pryakhin told reporters. "It is not that they mistrust politicians, they simply do not feel dependent on them," he noted about the elections. The fact that many Armenians rely on relatives abroad for financial support could explain the low interest in domestic politics, he added.

Similarly, an April 3-10 opinion poll of 2,000 Armenians conducted by British pollster Populus reported that 50 percent of respondents believe that the elections' outcome will have no personal significance for them. Thirty percent noted that there will be no change in Armenia generally, and only 10 percent of respondents expressed optimism about the elections' consequences.

Some sociologists argue that part of the problem is that Armenian political parties have not yet learned how to engage the public's attention and retain it for a month-long campaign. The knowledge of how "to conduct a competent and correct campaign . . . is absent in Armenia," commented Gevorg Poghosian, head of the Armenian Sociological Association.

A campaign poster featuring a photograph of an official sitting at a table and captioned "Strength and Faith" typifies the favored approach for pro-government party posters. Such placards can be seen throughout Armenian towns - even on the walls of kindergartens - and with little variation in facial expressions or slogans. Opposition posters tend to be equally non-descript.

"Time is moving on, but the campaign here is conducted on the level of the 1990's," said political campaign specialist Armen Badalian. " Everyone says that they will build a strong army, will raise pensions, will solve the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. The same thing constantly."

Attention to details frequently seems lacking. Information about rallies and concerts is not always widely distributed even within the parties themselves, much less to the press or public. The April 18 to May 2 report of the OSCE/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation Mission notes that "most parties appear to favor an approach of holding unannounced or short-notice rallies."

The result, continued Badalian, is a campaign "which cannot have any impact on the public."

"For a good result, political parties must work with voters for at least one year, conduct surveys, decide on psychological aspects [of the campaign], how they can influence the voter," said Badalian, who would not disclose for which parties he himself is working. "But what is happening is that, if, say, they are bribing voters [with handouts], they think they have already achieved their result and never think of consulting a specialist. They think they can do everything."

An informal poll of about a dozen political parties conducted by EurasiaNet found that none had turned to outside advisors for help with grabbing voters' interest.

"What specialist can help us if we ourselves have a good knowledge of this business?" asked Prosperous Armenia Party spokesman Baghdasar Mherian. "I conducted PR for President Robert Kocharian in the 2003 presidential election, and, as you see, we succeeded then, so we will be successful this time around as well."

A similar view holds on the other side of the political divide as well. Nikol Pashinian, a newspaper editor and one of the leaders of the hardline opposition Impeachment alliance argues that such specialists serve no purpose.

"If you have something to say to the people and thousands of people come to listen to you, and you do not follow any rule, but simply say what you want to say, then people will understand you," Pashinian said.

To improve voter engagement with the campaign, one member of the Republican Party of Armenia parliamentary faction has proposed shortening future parliamentary campaigns from the current 33 days to one or two weeks.

But for voters like 75-year-old Yerevan resident Varazdat Hakobian a larger problem still lingers on.

"Everyone smiles, shows they think about us, while everyone has in their minds how to cheat us and get hold of our votes and then disappear for years until the next election," Hakobian said. "Everyone is lying, so I won't go to the polls. Let them lie without me."

Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for the independent online weekly ArmeniaNow in Yerevan.

Voter Apathy Appears Widespread on Eve of Parliamentary Poll

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