Politicians in Armenia are crisscrossing the country, meeting with voters, passing out campaign brochures, shaking hands, kissing babies, hugging the elderly and making promises. Lots of them.
And not only.
Election campaigns are an opportunity for political parties running for office to present their ideas and policy positions on issues ranging from national security to healthcare. They take the time to formulate their policy platforms in order to share them with voters and in doing so, persuade them that they are the most credible, eligible party to lead the country.
In democracies, an informed electorate can make informed decisions. In democracies there is an attempt at political discourse. Voters vet the parties, decide which one they believe will serve them best and on Election Day walk into the voting booth and cast their ballot.
The absence of political and ideological discourse in Armenian election campaigns is not unusual per se, but this time around with nine political parties and blocs running for a minimum of 101 seats, coupled with the complex system of national party lists and district electoral lists, it seems the promises aren’t about policy positions.
Some candidates of some parties are promising to pave roads, pay off debts, install natural gas lines, pay tuition fees…one voter even complained that he had been married for seven years but that union had not resulted in any offspring and could the politician in question be of any help in that regard. Election promises and charity as concepts have somehow gotten all mixed up.
Several years ago, while in the village of Tatev a group of young women said that in a recent election they had voted for the Republican Party of Armenia. They said their decision was conditioned by the fact that their village mayor was a member of the party and it was natural for them to support him. Tribal mentality runs deep plus the mayor had promised to pay off for their university tuition. Although many months had passed since the election and the promise had not been kept, the young women were hopeful but strangely indifferent.
Some argue this situation is expected, after all in a country with a 30 percent poverty rate, people will have expectations from those running for office. They will expect voting bribes to be at a premium as competition is fierce, they expect to receive bribes from different parties, and will choose the one who had the best offering - it’s a matter of pride after all they say.
And while the 30 percent continue to be steeped in poverty, instead of offering realistic, long-term solutions to the crippling problems facing society, some politicians are opting to capitalize on this great need. A need that they created. A need that has become the politics of charity - I will give you something you need today, and in return for my magnanimity, you will vote for me.
It’s a simple trade - supply and demand. Who created the demand and who is supplying it is secondary.
Clearly, a fundamental shift in the conduct of election campaigning in the coming ten days is not going to happen. However, the day after, on April 3, if civil society organizations and the media began a systematic program geared at raising the political consciousness of the electorate and deconstructing the politicization of charity, then there's hope.
Hope that the next time a representative of a political party comes knocking offering a bribe, the voter will not extend her hand to receive it, but will instead quietly refuse and shut the door.