Do ideas count in Armenia's May 12 parliamentary vote? The answer appears to be no.
The unfulfilled promises of previous campaigns have left a large segment of the Armenian electorate feeling disillusioned. Pollsters, candidates and voters all state that handouts and free pop concerts are doing more to sway attitudes about a particular party or candidate than are specific policy proposals. Many Armenians, in fact, joke that a prize should be given to anyone who can find five differences between the platforms of the 24 parties competing for parliamentary seats.
Members of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly observation mission have bemoaned the lack of emphasis on public policy, telling journalists on April 14 that "no significant differences can be found in the platforms of the candidates and the parties."
"Many perceive this election as a struggle between political elites, not ideas and principles," said the PACE mission head, Leo Platvoet.
A member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia's political council, MP Armen Ashotian, similarly lamented the lack of political debate. But he contended that little can change until living standards rise. His recommendation? Wait for the next parliamentary elections -- in 2012.
Gevorg Poghosian, head of the Armenian Sociological Association, said voters should not be faulted for harboring cynical attitudes toward the campaign. He pointed to past experience which shows that campaign promises are rarely kept. "They [potential voters] are simply tired of hearing about programs that can't be realized, and understand that party promises and programs very rarely come true," said Poghosian. "That is why they prefer making use of the moment and selling their votes."
Practical considerations often dominate the decision-making process, said Hrant Movsisian, an 18-year-old student at the Yerevan Fine Arts College and a resident of Etchmiadzin, a town about 15 kilometers from Yerevan. "We will give our votes to whomever gives us free buses [to travel] from Etchmiadzin to Yerevan," he said. One former Republican Party candidate, already eliminated from the race in Etchmiadzin, was known for providing such bus rides. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Those free fares were crucial for Movsisian because without them he might not have been able to attend school in the capital. He explained that his family relies on his mother's $50-per-month salary as a kindergarten teacher, making $4-per-day bus rides to Yerevan for Movsisian and his sister prohibitively expensive. "Everyone who has a student in the family studying in Yerevan thinks the same way, because their most important problem is this [transportation]."
Such handouts -- usually termed "acts of charity" -- have become closely associated with the pro-government Prosperous Armenia Party, which has experienced a meteoric rise in its membership over the past year. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Based on an early April survey of 2,000 respondents, the British pollster Populus estimates that the party, little known before last year, now commands the support of 27 percent of voters, slightly behind the ruling Republican Party of Armenia which reportedly has 31 percent of voters' support.
Party members openly acknowledge that the party's popularity is closely linked to the image of its leader, tycoon Gagik Tsarukian, who is viewed as a deep-pocketed benefactor. The provision of free bus rides for university students, or the establishment of regional healthcare clinics merely show that "he is capable of solving the problems and the social issues of which a significant part of the population complain," said Vardan Bostanjian, a Prosperous Armenia candidate.
Runaway corruption is a frequent complaint, and one that some voters believe requires a wealthy parliamentarian to withstand. A candidate who shows his wealth is a candidate with no need to rob the state once elected to parliament, commented 67-year-old retiree Stepan Poghosian.
"Let him [the candidate] be a well-off man, full of everything, not to think about people's pensions and allowances, not to fill his pocket with aid coming from abroad," said Poghosian, whose chief source of income is a $35 monthly pension. "That's the reason I will be voting for the wealthiest person."
One opposition member, however, worries that this mindset, over the long term, could contribute to the "collapse" of a functioning democratic political system. "Everyone talks about whose balloon or poster is larger, whose song is what in the campaign," said Aram Manukian, a member of the Armenian National Movement. "And people feel happy when their own stolen money returns to them through bribes, and [they] qualify it as the candidates' strong inclination for benevolent acts."
Nonetheless, voter criteria for what makes a good individual candidate outside of personal wealth or handouts do exist. Thirty-one percent of 1,200 voters surveyed in 2006 by the Gallup Institute and the Armenian Sociological Association named a candidate's honesty and objectivity as the most important qualifications for election, followed by 30 percent who cited his or her commitment to democratic values. A high level of education was desirable for 28 percent of the respondents, while 19 percent cited the candidate's readiness to care for people's needs. The poll was conducted for the International Republican Institute. A fresh survey by the Gallup Institute in March 2007 showed that those expectations remain largely unchanged, noted Gallup representative Rasa Alisauskiene, who trained field workers for the survey.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow online weekly in Yerevan.