Controversial Elections Reflect Armenian Society's Shortcomings

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By Harut Sassounian
California Courier Publisher

Any fair-minded and concerned Armenian who has closely followed the Armenian presidential campaign and the subsequent elections must be troubled by the turmoil it has created in the fragile homeland. While the supporters of President Robert Kocharian are calling on Armenians to rally behind the re-elected head of state, those backing the opposition presidential candidate Stepan Demirjian are refusing to accept the legitimacy of the election.

Several international organizations have issued highly critical reports pointing out the violations and suggesting changes in Armenia's electoral process. These monitoring groups have issued similar reports after previous Armenian elections. Despite the fact that many of their recommendations have been adopted and the electoral laws and procedures have been improved, the problems do not seem to go away.

The truth is that Armenia, like all other former Soviet republics, has been caught up in such turmoil during every election since independence. In my opinion, no matter what the foreign observers report, Armenia will continue to experience such problems as long as Armenians themselves do not make a firm commitment to respect the rule of the law, not just in the elections, but in every aspect of the system governing their lives. Even though the preponderance of responsibility falls on those in power, the respect for law and order must be shared by every segment of Armenian society, including the government and the opposition.

Independently of the judgments made by foreign election monitors, Armenians, first of all, should set the highest possible standards for themselves, so that their own people could enjoy all the rights and freedoms that they are entitled to. Secondarily, since Armenians have decided to join the Council of Europe and have become signatories to various international instruments, they have an additional obligation to observe these universally accepted standards.

Even though Armenian society cannot be completely transformed overnight, Armenians should strive to gradually make structural as well as functional changes in their government. The same high ethical standards should apply to those they support as well as those they oppose. The first priority should be, making a firm commitment to reject everyone who does not operate within the confines of law and order. This would mean that, henceforth, Armenians would refuse to allow a whole slew of wrongs that are prevalent both in the way the country is run. There should be zero tolerance for corruption, nepotism, cronyism, defamatory accusations in newspapers, unfair business practices, tax dodging, crooked officials, dishonest judges, selective prosecution, arbitrary imprisonment, etc.

Once such a commitment is made, those who deviate from these standards should be ostracized by Armenian society. Crooks and criminals should be taken off the streets and sentenced to long jail terms by tough, yet honest judges; everyone, including those with connections to certain circles, must pay their fair share of taxes; a select group of businessmen should not enjoy an unfair advantage over their competitors; yellow journalists should no longer be able to defame people on a regular basis and remain in the news business; and candidates and their supporters should not be able to buy votes.

Only after Armenian society makes such a commitment to itself, it would be possible to improve all aspects of people's lives, including elections. A panel of experts could then be convened to completely overhaul Armenia's electoral laws.

Armenia has no time to waste. Already this week, preparations have started for the May 25th parliamentary elections. Unless immediate steps are taken, Armenians could experience yet another controversial election. Despite the many shortcomings of the recent elections, there were several very positive developments which should not be overlooked:

  1. The opposition candidates, despite their lack of trust in the judicial system, used all legal avenues to register their complaints, including filing lawsuits with the local courts and the Constitutional Court to contest the violations and to challenge the outcome of the elections.
  2. For the first time since independence, the two presidential candidates faced each other in a nationally televised debate which gave the citizens of Armenia an opportunity to compare them and make an informed choice. Even though the debate should have been better organized, it created a positive precedent for all future elections.
  3. The hundreds of thousands of Armenians who went out to vote for both candidates and participated in various public rallies, showed that Armenians are highly interested in the political process and hope that elections and other public actions can make a difference in their lives. This is very positive. Such political activism should be encouraged. A politically mature and active public is the basic foundation on which one can build a democratic society.

Armenia could do better. However, elections cannot be improved in isolation. They are a part and parcel of the way Armenian society conducts itself in all other areas. Better elections can be held only after Armenians commit to governing themselves with fairness and transparency. Those concerned about the way the election was conducted could help improve it by contributing to the transformation of all other aspects of Armenian society!