The ARF and the 2013 Armenian Presidential Election

The outcome of the May 2012 parliamentary elections in Armenia was justifiable cause for concern (see “Lessons from the May 2012 Armenian Parliamentary Elections,” The Armenian Weekly, July 21, 2012). The situation in Syria, as well as the recent agreement by Turkey and the United States to form a task force to share information to “help” once the various rebel groups succeed in overthrowing Bashar al-Assad, only ramps up the concern. This is another example of Turkey using the United States to support its aggressive foreign policy in the region, which could well contain an anti-Armenian component with respect to the Syrian-Armenian community.

An ARF campaign billboard from the 2012 parliamentary elections in Armenia (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian)

The Syrian crisis has placed the Armenian community in a precarious position. Recent reports stress the dire position of our brothers and sisters under what can best be described as full-scale wartime conditions. Although there has been no outward showing of panic or frenetic decision-making, our people have no viable options other than to weather the ongoing political storm. It is important that the community’s response places it in the most advantageous position possible to accommodate future political realities.

It is unfortunate that some of our oldest and vibrant diasporan communities are in countries where so-called “popular uprisings” can quickly create destabilizing conditions. It is apparent that the Syrian-Armenian leaders must assess the long-term viability of their community. Similar evaluations must be taken by other potentially vulnerable Armenian communities in countries where internal upheaval is becoming a fact of life.

Living as we are in such highly uncertain times places a heavy burden on the ARF leadership to anticipate these destabilizing events, as well be prepared to respond to an ever-changing set of situations and issues that may affect the viability of our diasporan communities and the political agenda of the Dashnaktsutiun. If anything can be certain, it is the fact that the issues and problems will only increase in number and intensity. Given this reality, it is assumed that the ARF has in place a grand design—an over-arching vision—that clarifies and unifies its various efforts; incorporates a continuing analysis of the human and financial inputs against the actual and expected results its policies and initiatives produce; provides for an effective human resources management program stressing meritocracy that is responsible for attracting, training, and utilizing people; and creating a mechanism for real-time evaluation of its short- and long-term priorities within an ever-changing political environment.

Having said that, it is apparent that the ARF must move on from the results of the recent parliamentary election and the crisis in Syria, which has unfortunately become a “watchful waiting” situation. We may well ask, What does the ARF move on to? The obvious answer is the 2013 Armenian presidential election.

The importance of the presidential election is impossible to overemphasize. It represents a critical and final opportunity for some time to come for the Dashnaktsutiun to expand its voter base and increase its influence if it expects to move out of the political doldrums and assert itself as a vibrant political party.

In the 2008 presidential election, the ARF received slightly over 6 percent of the votes cast, placing it fourth behind the Rule of Law Party, which had slightly over 17 percent of the vote. This represented a difference of approximately 175,000 votes. Assuming the size of the electorate, along with the number that turn out to cast ballots in 2013, has not changed significantly, a realistic goal for the ARF would be to double its percentage share of the vote cast to around 13 percent or more, with a third place finish a possibility. Why should this be important? A continuing single digit voter attraction only reinforces the status of the ARF as a marginal political party. While the culture of electioneering corruption can be cited as a factor, we must also acknowledge that our message is not being accepted by the voter. If the Dashnaktsutiun cannot break out of this politically confining mold, how does it expect to have any meaningful role charting the course of development in Armenia; or aiding Artsakh as it seeks de jure recognition; or supporting the Javakhayer; or influencing the terms of a future rapprochement with Turkey. The United States ambassador to Armenia, John Heffern, is officially committed to having the protocols ratified and implemented supposedly without any preconditions. There is no upside for Armenia if the protocols are ratified.

The ARF has indicated that it will have a candidate in the 2013 presidential election. However, the candidate is not the most important component of the campaign; it is the party’s determination to wage a vigorous campaign that will prove to the worker and his family that the Dashnaktsutiun can be depended on to fight for an improved quality of life. If we cannot defend and be proud of the presidential campaign that was ultimately waged, then the party has not only failed the electorate, but the loyal ungers and ungerouhis who labor for the ARF throughout the diaspora.

The Dashnaktsutiun’s message must be simple and direct. The message must be believable, easily understood, and one that the voters can accept. The message must reflect public positions that the party has consistently taken in support of legitimate expressions of concern by various segments of the electorate. It would be too late to use the campaign to recast the image of the party or to stake out positions that were only tenuously related to the party’s known agenda. The ARF should always be in campaign mode, defining itself as committed to the worker and his family through its day-to-day activities. We must be viewed as the political fedayees of the new century, hell-bent on displacing the entrenched powers that are sapping Armenia of its vitality and its potential for greatness. If that is too dramatic a prescription, let’s at least agree that it is our duty to liberate the worker and his family from an oppressive economic and political system. If we cannot generate that degree of passion, then we are disavowing our heritage.

Unfortunately, it is the Dashnaktsutiun that has to prove itself to the voter. Its message cannot be political rhetoric, long on promises that the voter realizes cannot be kept. The ARF did itself no favors when early on it aligned itself with the Sarkisian Administration. The party will be appealing to people who have become cynical and skeptical for a reason. The hard-pressed voters already know the system because their lives have been adversely impacted by it.

The voters must be led to understand that their quality of life can only improve if the present system is replaced by one based on the social democratic principles of freedom, equality, opportunity, and justice. These words sound great, but the voters have to know how these high-sounding principles will actually improve their lives. If we can’t explain how, then we have lost the opportunity as well as their vote.

An integral part of the understanding that must be hammered home is the realization that their liberation from economic and political servitude can only come about by supporting the ARF at the ballot box. It is an imperative that the party is able to show how this liberation will be achieved. This message, to be repeated again and again, is that their vote is not only a vote of confidence in the ARF, it is a vote for themselves, a vote for the future of their children, and a vote for those who must depend on government for assistance. They have to be convinced that a vote for the ARF is a vote for a better Armenia.

The message must provide specific examples that clearly show the relationship between the failed policies of the administration and the role of the oligarchs, and the problems that the worker and his family face with respect to the cost of basic necessities, job creation, inadequate wages, pension payments, affordable housing, and environmental quality. There must be a corresponding emphasis on workable programs that will replace or modify existing policies and programs that the ARF claims have failed. We cannot define problems and cast blame without offering solutions. If we cannot help voters make these important connections, why should we expect them to cast their ballot for the Dashnaktsutiun?

The presidential candidate must be supported by a carefully selected cadre of surrogates who will take this simple and direct message from the small rural villages to the districts in the urban areas. The party’s message must be conveyed using various media, access to which might be a problem, as well as using indoor and outdoor venues. Although the theme of the message remains constant, the particulars must be tailored to the needs and expectations of specific segments of the electorate. Not only the candidate but his surrogates must exhibit the passion and have the intimate knowledge that will allow them to be perceived by the voter as genuinely concerned with their situation. This is nothing more than Electioneering 101.

There is no question that the ARF faces an up-hill battle. It is not a level playing field. Voter payments, the intimidation and coercion of voters, promises of one kind or another for votes, the availability of television time, etc., are well-known examples of corrupt practices employed by the opposition. However, the ARF must be prepared to confront, by all means available, any and all obstacles and fraudulent practices used by the opposition. If the latter persists, which it surely will, then the ARF should make it an election issue if it is deemed to be politically profitable, while also appealing to international organizations for independent observers. This may not correct the situation, but it will publicize the corrupt practices employed by the opposition to limit the legitimate right of the ARF to conduct its presidential campaign. The workers and their families must be made to understand that as long as they aid and abet these fraudulent practices used by the oligarchs and their allies, they will forever be kept in an economically subservient position.

The leadership must accept this presidential election as a critical challenge: The Dashnaktsutiun must create the legitimate perception in the mind of the voter that it is the only political party that is devoted to their interests. Only by supporting the Dashnaktsutiun can the worker succeed in throwing off the shackles of economic and political servitude that denies him the quality of life he should have.

This type of campaign is not an easy one to mount in Armenia. It pits the ARF leadership and the party faithful against powerful, entrenched interests that will do whatever is necessary to protect their wealth and influence. However, we cannot be as cynical as the voters we are trying to influence. It is accepted that the role of a revolutionary in society is not an easy one to fulfill. Hopefully, we still remain revolutionaries in mind and spirit. If the Dashnaktsutiun is not prepared to wage this type of campaign, difficult as it may be, then it would be better to sit out the 2013 Armenian presidential election and simply accept the party’s marginal role in Armenian political life.

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Michael Mensoian

Michael Mensoian, J.D./Ph.D, is professor emeritus in Middle East and political geography at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a retired major in the U.S. army. He writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.

3 Comments

  1. It is interesting to see the continued use of “we” in this piece, assumedly because the author is writing on behalf of the entire ARF organization. Unfortunately, due to the decentralized structure of the party, regions where the party is active outside of Armenia can do little to influence party presidential campaign strategy, never mind the fact that the ARF in Armenia for all intents and purposes operates like a completely different party. While ARF leaders in Yerevan may talk the talk, they do not have the will to act like real players on the political field, as if they don’t really take themselves seriously as politicians and are rather more interested in reaping the benefits of being affiliated with a party and its scope of influence. Keep in mind that the ARF had a role to play in the rise of the “entrenched interests” you identify with its tight allegiance to Kocharian, they permitted the current polarization of society to take shape. So we need to clearly draw a distinction between the ARF in the diaspora and the ARF in Armenia and begin to understand how disparate the mentalities are on both sides. Perhaps “we” could have been used in the contexts of this commentary ten years ago. Not anymore.

  2. The important passage in the last paragraph: “It pits the ARF leadership and the party faithful against powerful, entrenched interests that will do whatever is necessary to protect their wealth and influence.” – sums up the whole thing nicely.

    These same people “with wealth and influence” are the problem… and they happen to be the same type of people who have been brainwashing Armenians of Armenia for the past 90 years as to what an “evil” organization the ARF was/is.

    After 20 years, we realize now how effective that indoctrination was: in the diaspora communities, most Armenian expats (particularly the later comers) do not get involved or support anything that has to do with the ARF. It has almost become part of their cultural identity. 70 years of Soviet “education” has taught them that the ARF was the real enemy. And this concept today lingers on in their minds as sort of a “family tradition”.

    Now in Armenia, I believe that if the people there are educated with the right information eventually this false indoctrination left over from the Soviet Union will start to fade, and eventually the ARF will become a viable political force in Armenia, because its above cited enemies are no match for the ARF’s history and achievements. One of the ways the ARF can be successful there is to have the people support it.

  3. Interesting and thought provoking artcile. However, the results of the prliamentary elections clearly indicated that the ARF in Armenia has failed miserably in making any positive impressions on the electorate. There is no focus and the message,if any, is blurred. It is not getting through.
    I personally am of the opinion that the ARF should not have a candidate for the Presidential elections. It is a futile effort and waste of energy and money. It could also be very embarassing. It is better to sit out and spend the energy on developing a strategy that speaks to the minds and hearts of the Armenians in Armenia.
    Otherwise, sadly the ARF will continue to be a marginal player in Armenia.
    Vart Adjemian

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