The Feb. 18, 2013 Armenian presidential elections had only a handful of political parties willing or able to oppose the reelection of President Serge Sarkisian of the Republican Party. Some political parties had decided to sit out the election rather than have their campaign fall victim to the usual political misconduct and voting irregularities that are endemic to elections in Armenia. Their rationale is that participation adds legitimacy to a seriously flawed election process. Although these irregularities can be persuasive reasons to boycott an election, it is a decision that abdicates a party’s responsibility to the voters and directly contributes to the electorate remaining cynical and resigned to accepting conditions detrimental to their well-being.
Political parties must weigh the effect that sitting out an election can have against the benefits that could accrue if they were to mount effective campaigns. When confronted by these vexing questions, party leaders should remember the many times in the glorious history of our people that soldiers and fedayees engaged in battle because it was considered their honorable duty to protect their nation—against all odds. In the same way, political parties have a duty to participate in any election that devolves from the set of principles, ideals, and vision for the future to protect the interests of the people and the state.
Armenia has had only three presidents since declaring its independence in 1991. And during these three administrations the economy has steadily deteriorated. If political parties are assumed to have an altruistic purpose, why should any problems exist? One overriding reason is that once a political party is ensconced in power, its policies and programs are prey to corruption by extraneous influences and pressure groups that have little or no interest in the well-being of the people or the viability of the state. This is not an uncommon situation when a ruling party has no serious opposition with which to contend.
Since 1991 unemployment and underemployment have steadily risen, ameliorated only somewhat because families and individuals have been forced to emigrate in search of employment or an improved quality of life. Countless Armenian families have been disrupted when the husband or father has had to seek work in a foreign country to support his family. The below replacement-level fertility rate, combined with emigration, have reduced the country’s population by at least 1 million, contributing to a rapid aging of the population. Too many of these elderly Armenians are being forced to live their retirement years in poverty.
The equality that women are guaranteed by the constitution has limited application in practice. Zarouhi Petrosyan’s death in 2009 awakened the Armenian conscience to the prevalence of domestic violence in the country. Zarouhi was a mother of a two-year-old girl and was routinely subjected to vicious attacks by her husband. Yet, martial violence and abuse continues unabated, with no legislation enacted to protect wives and mothers from shameless husbands who are no better than predators. Environmental degradation not only continues, but is intensifying. Habitats for endangered species of animals and plants are being destroyed by cutting old growth forests; extracting low grade copper ore, which is profitable only because it is unregulated; degrading the surface and ground water supplies; and decreasing air quality because relevant regulations either do not exist or are not enforced. The expansion and beautification of Yerevan continues unabated because it financially benefits the contactors, property owners, building material suppliers, and investors who represent a small politically connected group. While the capital city expands, the dichotomy with its hinterland increases to the detriment of the rural families and their quality of life. Young women in orphanages, upon reaching the age of 18, must leave this sheltered environment without having had any effective program, either before or after leaving, that would provide them with the necessary economic and social skills to become effective members of society. Need I go on? And while the country is engulfed by all of these shortcomings, the oligarchs are still able to enrich themselves.
How can political parties, under such conditions, consider sitting out an election an appropriate response? These deplorable conditions are not what our people should have to endure. Sitting out an election, however it may be rationalized, not only deprives the electorate of a voice in opposition to the failed policies of the incumbent, but leaves no alternative for the voter to consider. How can the leadership of these parties expect any legitimate, post-election opposition to be taken seriously by the voters when the victorious candidate has been given a free pass during the election? The lack of serious opposition—or oversight, if you will—by political parties has allowed “mer mayreni yergire” to become a fiefdom for a small group of favored individuals and families.
If any of these parties want to break out of their marginal status, they must make a sincere effort to support the various (often ignored) segments of the electorate, such as the elderly, the unemployed, the rural families, the non-farm workers, and the legitimate interest groups that have been forming in Armenia in support of the environmental regulations, women’s rights, legislation to protect women from marital violence, etc. And at the same time, these same parties must actively oppose those special interests with their agendas that continue to bleed Armenia for personal gain. An effective political party should be at the forefront, confronting the programs and policies of an administration that does not effectively address the wellbeing of its citizens or the security of the state. Political parties must be perceived by the electorate as being committed to a better, stronger, and secure Armenia.