Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Democracy, Beyond Elections

Compared to the previous elections in Armenia – when ten people lost their lives during opposition demonstrations - the 2013 presidential ballot was predicted to be a boring non-event. It had actually been decided long ago, when, following what appears to have been a highly convincing private meeting, Armenia’s wealthiest man, Gagik Tsarukian, decided not to put forward his candidacy to the office.  If anyone could pose a threat to the sitting president, Serj Sargsyan, in terms of organisational capability and financial firepower, it would certainly have been the richest of all Armenian oligarchs.  Over the past few years, Tsarukian had gradually built his ‘Prosperous Armenia’ party into the second-largest in the land, with the reserves required to counter-act the blatant disparities that accompany every incumbent’s re-election campaign in the former Soviet Union.  

But when push came to shove, Tsarukian drew back, prompting accusations that he had been in cahoots with the sitting president all along (his party used to be part of the ruling coalition and he is, after all, still an oligarch), and that this had all been a set-up designed to even Sargsyan’s path towards a second term.  Armenia would not follow Georgia’s example, where president Saakashvili had been turned into a lame duck by that particularly country’s richest man, Bidzhina Ivanishvili, following parliamentary elections in 2012. The Armenian population was subsequently confronted with a complete fait accompli when the ANC’s Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Armenia’s first president and leader of the main opposition grouping, decided not to field his candidacy either.  ‘Serjik’, with his control of state resources and the formidable machinery in and around the oligarch-stuffed Republican Party (which I shall henceforth refer to as ‘the system’) could now rest assured of his next term.

And so, at first at least, the election campaign became a rather lacklustre affair. The incumbent, predictably, had a ready supply of government-provided extras at his campaign rallies, usually consisting of state employees and their families (but no balloons!).  His utter lack of personal charisma didn’t matter: in Armenia, crowds know when to applaud and to cheer, and feign government-mandated enthusiasm at the appropriate moments.  They had practiced it for decades in Soviet times, during their May Day rallies on Republic Square.  Most of his opponents didn’t stand a chance in any case.  Baruyr Hayrikian, a Soviet-era pro-independence dissident, wasn’t taken seriously as a politician despite the popular respect he commanded for his confrontations with Moscow, at a time when it was still not fashionable to believe in Armenian statehood.  For all his qualities as an economist, former prime minister Hrant Bagradyan was still associated with the privations of the early years of independence, when Armenians had to subsist on rationed bread and 4 hours of electricity a day during their freezing winter.  One fringe candidate limited his campaigning to a hunger strike in a tent on a Yerevan square – as a continuous protest against the public apathy that had apparently taken over the population.  Raffi Hovanissian, Armenia’s first post-Soviet foreign minister, emerged as his most credible opponent from among the seven registered opposition and independent candidates.  But with his Heritage Party lacking the financial and organisational resources of its oligarch-funded counterparts, he would have to make up for this disadvantage through a down-to-earth, Western-style, flesh-pressing campaign, which he attempted to do as best he could.

Still, thanks to Sargsyan’s administrative resources, these elections were to be a walk in the park for the incumbent.  And, in any case, Armenia’s population appeared entirely apathetic, in no small part because of the tendency of young, unemployed men of working age to emigrate:  Armenians habitually vote with their feet rather than at the ballot-box, a national tradition which the current elite doesn’t object to in the least, seeing it as a rather welcome pressure valve ridding the population of the ultimate potential troublemakers – young, educated, unemployed men.  Faced with such weak opposition, Sargsyan could therefore afford to be generous. The other candidates were allowed free access to the media; there was minimal violence or intimidation at campaign rallies; and, significantly, with the spread of internet connectivity, streaming technologies and social media did reach at least part of the Armenian population.  The pre-election discourse nevertheless remained so tepid that the incumbent could afford to be exceptionally gracious in expressing effusive praise for his opponents; an unprecedented event in Armenia’s post-independence history.  There were no televised debates, in fact, there was no debating whatsoever in any meaningful sense of the word, despite of the momentous, urgent issues facing the country: economic stagnation, the Karabakh conflict, fraught relations with its neighbours, emigration.

You never know, however, and, sure enough, come election day, ‘the system’ went into full swing to make doubly sure its preferred candidate attained victory, its task facilitated by electoral lists that have, for years, been deliberately left inaccurate so that those who are dead and those who have fled may kindly provide their votes.   Especially in poorer urban areas, the ‘khoroshi tgherq’ – literally ‘goodfellas’ – make certain to deliver ‘their’ precinct in favour of the authorities, 1920s Chicago-style; as elsewhere in the FSU, organised crime and pro-government politics are tightly interwoven at all levels, and the local (or even provincial) ‘hood’ is often a member of the ruling party.  His goons hang around polling stations (or worse, become local election committee members), and do the dirty work like bribing voters, stuffing ballot boxes, or, if necessary, intimidating opposition proxies (if they are present at all, as most candidates lacked the resources to post them in every precinct this time round).  Outside cities, in the villages, ‘the system’ is usually organised around the village heads (often also local strongmen), who similarly undertake to ‘deliver’ their community’s votes, come what may.  Regardless of your party affiliation, you must be either extremely courageous or extremely foolish to protest in the face of irregularities, and there is little doubt that most of these activities go unreported.  How Western observers - most of whom have merely parachuted into the country for a few weeks or days - would be able to detect the full extent of such behaviour is, also, a very pertinent question. 

And all of this combined neatly with the country’s fundamentally distorted media landscape.  When the OSCE observer mission reported that the various candidates did have fair access to the media, it was only half-correct: it would have been more accurate to state that these candidates were tolerated on channels that are, overwhelmingly, owned by government-connected individuals. This mattered – and very much so – on election day itself: for incisive reporting on violations you had to visit the alternative outlets, some which were anti-government channels that had been taken off the air years ago, often in the run-up to previous elections.  In the absence of cleverly denied over-the-air broadcasting licenses, A1Plus, Gala TV (and an internet-only source, Civilnet.TV) were left streaming video to the very few Armenian citizens with access to broadband.  Later, instead of doing what responsible journalists are supposed to do on an election night, the oligarch-owned terrestrial channels - with their mass audiences - swiftly switched to a mixture of pop music, chat shows and soap operas, instead of reporting on the press conference where Sargsyan’s challenger alleged massive fraud, a major news story any right-thinking news professional would insist on covering live on an election night. 

Who won the vote? God knows.  As the OSCE observer mission should itself admit, Rumsfeld-style, there are too many known unkowns and unkown unkowns to establish whether Sargsyan got 40, 50 or 70% of the vote.  What Armenians do know, however, is that there were violations, and, that in their society, there are people who remain, as ever, above and beyond the law.  You cannot blame them for extrapolating from there: in the presence of this very known reality, and the absence of the rule of law percentages become a moot point.  For Armenian democrats, the OSCE's claim that these elections were an 'improvement' implied a sinister truth: that Armenia’s continued domination by a privileged, thuggish oligarchic class has become so entrenched, so utterly all-encompassing and structurally dominant, so ‘reified’ as to be invisible to those who are supposed to uphold democratic norms, as they remain fixated on the finer points of (observable) electoral procedure.  And that is a very dangerous development indeed.  It is a feeling of disgust and despair with all of the above, not some kind of irrational or immature inability to accept election results, that prompted courageous democratically-minded Armenian citizens like Lena Nazaryan to display a distrust towards official figures, and loudly protest observers’ reports that uncritically document ‘improvements’ over previous elections earlier today.  What a pity the observers themselves chose to move away, instead of trying to understand as well as observe.

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