Election Fraud Occured in Armenia - But Not at the Ballot Box
[May 21, 2007]
"Today, even those defeated political forces who refrain from stating that fraud occured at the ballot box, agree with the above observation. One can't say that ballot stuffing or an incorrect vote count took place or that some went to the polls under false identities and cast their votes. No, people went to the ballot box and cast their vote with their own hands. But that's not to say that the electoral process was fair and just. It's difficult in a society where most everybody knows everyone else to hand out bribes and keep it under wraps." These are the comments of Hrayr Tovmasyan, a post-graduate student of jurisprudence and a lawyer with the Project to Strengthen the Legal System, as to why election bribes are offered and accepted.
- Why Do People Accept Election Bribes?
- The first reason is the absence of a tradition of legal guidelines. The prevailing mentality that nothing will change anyway is deeply embedded in the populace. According to my observations, a large segment of society thus believes that "whoever is meant to win, will win" and given that their vote is meaningless anyway they might as well profit from voting. In other words, accepting a bribe. Another important factor is the poor socio-economic situation. I often portray the Armenian bribe taker as someone who has spent a long time in the desert without food or water. Suddenly, two people appear. One promises to give him a piece of bread and a glass of water if our desert dweller votes in his favor. The second promises to show him the road to follow to reach a supply of both food and water. The man takes the immediate offer of the bread and water, not realizing that he'll still be in the desert for the foreseeable future. I should add that the man also isn't convinced that he'll be shown the correct path in order to reach the promised food and drink. There's another reason as well. Around her, if we catch someone stealing money from our pocket we naturally call him a thief. But those who stuff ballots and deal in bribes, etc, are not considered criminals in our society. On the contrary, they're seen as the "clever" ones. People convicted of handing out or taking election bribes can face from 2-5 years imprisonment. Imagine, in the course of just one day a major segment of our society became criminals. And it's amazing that even high-level government officials call for the abolishment of bribery and for people to vote according to their conscience. That's like calling on people to rape, steal and kill. Our society doesn't consider bribery a crime. This is a manifestation of the low level of our political culture. After elections people do not see any change of leadership nor any improvement in their lives. If we exclude the overthrow of the Communist regime and the regime change following the internal political wrangling of 1998, we can say that elections in Armenia have not produced any change in the ruling regime.
- Why Are Election Bribes Handed Out?
- In Armenia, holding on to the reins of power is the most direct route to self-enrichment. Power allows one to be in an ideal position to partake in the distribution of wealth and property. Political power also makes it easier to defend one's accumulated wealth as other, legal means, to do so are absent; namely a free and fair court system. So we are faced with both bribe givers and takers. Together they form a self-perpetuating cycle. Election fraud has changed in form only. Whereas in 2003, it surfaced in the form of beatings, theft, etc, today, the purveyors of fraud go knocking from door-to-door, making deals and handing out bribes.
- Why We're Faced With This Situation?
- Naturally, these phenomena are deeply rooted. Until the end of the 19th century Armenians had no political state while the rest of the world was advancing and strengthening the development of a "civil society" within their boundaries. Meanwhile, Armenian society was giving birth to concepts such as political expediency and passivity. There are two sayings which are unique to Armenians. I haven't even come across versions of these sayings in other cultures. The sayings are, " Where there's bread, go live there", and "You have nails, go scratch your head". Such a genetic mentality doesn't bode well for Armenians engaged in elections.
- What Needs To Be Done To Correct This Situation?
- If we use the lexicon of a chess game then it's not possible to calculate the one correct move that might give us a positional advantage. In the best scenario, only a combination of moves might help us avoid defeat. Election fraud is the symptom of the problem To correct the situation we must identify and root out the causes. Political power should not be allowed to become so seductive nor should it become a means to obtain wealth and later protect it. Only then, will people understand that, in reality, serving as a member of the National Assembly is quite a thankless and demanding job.
- What About The European Election Observers?
- The observers surely felt that something was going on during the election process but understood that they were in no position to make any blanket statements to this effect. But we can talk about widespread election bribes because we are members of this society and are intimately aware of who's who and what's what. The observers didn't have such a vantage point. Thus, we can't really blame the observers for turning a blind eye on the problem of election fraud. And bribery is one of it's most complicated criminal manifestations.
Interview by Lena Nazaryan