Planting Votes?: Party’s plan to distribute seeds sews bribe accusations

Two weeks ago, Gagik Tsarukyan's "Prosperous Armenia" party announced on television its plan to start distributing autumn sowing wheat seeds and potatoes to villages. The party says its efforts are humanitarian, aimed at relief from drought.

Welcome to the unofficial start of the 2007 election campaign - called benevolence by some, but viewed as bribes for votes by others.

Bribes paid to voters play a major role in the pre-election campaign and the mechanisms of bribe-giving are being perfected continuously. While an aspiring deputy would distribute 2000-5000 drams to voters directly without an extra thought some five years ago, or would lay asphalt on the streets the month before the election, the campaign for this election has started with large-scale benevolent actions.

Article 18 of the Electoral Code stipulates that during pre-election campaign: “The candidates and parties are prohibited from personally or otherwise giving (promising) citizens money, food, shares, goods, or providing (promising) services free of charge or at privileged conditions.”

Aware of the provision, the parties have launched a non-official campaign six months before the parliamentary elections, which is, in fact not prohibited by the electoral code.

How are the voters’ bribes differentiated from benevolence?

“The law provides that the political parties who are eager to organize benevolence activities should register as benevolent organizations, but the Law on Benevolence stipulates that benevolent organizations should not tie up their activities with political matters. And the Electoral Code provides that benevolent organizations do not entertain the right of participating in political campaigns; meaning that political parties should not be engaged in benevolence activities for the reason of being a political force,” says Shavarsh Kocharyan, member of the National Assembly “Ardarutiun” faction.

Shavarsh Kocharyan explains the reason of the flourishing situation with the bribes by the imperfectness of the electoral code, which prohibits benevolence only within the campaign period (nearly two months prior to the elections), but it lacks indication on whether benevolence is allowed before that period of time or not.

“Everything is unclear in the code, Article 18th reads benevolent organizations have no right for participation in campaign, but it does not say anything about whether political parties have the right to be engaged in benevolence. We want to change this very kind of items in the code. And those who have come to power by means of bribes struggle against our initiative,” says the deputy.

But the perception of the line between bribe and benevolence is murky in Armenia. Almost every new programs on the “Kentron” TV Channel belonging to Gagik Tsarukyan cover the benevolent actions organized by the “Prosperous Armenia” Party led by the same Gagik Tsarukyan.

The party claims distributing wheat and potato seeds is simply the start of its project for rural development. But others debate that assessment.

“In fact this is a well pondered campaign. The problem is not that they distribute potatoes and wheat seeds, but that they force people to take part in the election and vote for their party by all means. The starving people will swear on anyone who helps them. And this will be the case in this circumstances,” says Shavarsh Kocharyan.

Tsarukyan isn't the only one to use his own television station for political gain. Tigran Karapetyan, the chairman of the People’s Party has also launched activities of pre-election “benevolence." He has been exploiting his “ALM” TV holding for this purpose for four years already.

The “Music Treasure Box” program was the beginning of the long-lasting campaign, when children and young people from villages were given opportunity to perform on TV, independent of their abilities to sing or to recite. He also has a talk show where he invites voters to call in with their problems, and has introduced a new game show where he awards pensioners, a key demographic target of the programming, with prizes.

“We had been observing how Karapetyan took people to Sevan Lake by buses throughout the summer, entertained them and danced with them. The new game where he presents the elderly people with TV and radio sets and teapots, isn’t it a bribe?” asks independent sociologist Martin Gevorgyan.

Tigran Karapetyan, the chairman of the “ALM” holding is confident the majority of people accept what he does not as a bribe, but benevolence.

“That’s the way only you, the journalists, think. Ask the people of what they think about me: I give children a chance to show their abilities, I think of the ways to make the humdrum existence of the elderly a bit lighter. I have created benevolent foundation two years ago and its activities are not tied up with that of the political party,” says Karapetyan.

There are some people who truly admire the “Prosperous Armenia” and Tigran Karapetyan.

Samvel Barseghyan from Aparan says he has had no opportunity to visit a doctor for ten years. A dozen of doctors arrived in Aparan upon the initiative of the “Prosperous Armenia” Party October 28th with a mission of providing the population of the region with free medical services.

“One of my eyes couldn’t see, but they healed me free of charge; the state gave me no seeds, but Tsarukyan gave: he is our savior and a big benefactor, I will vote for him, only Tsarukyan and Tigran Karapetyan care for the people, and I will vote for them,” says Barseghyan excited.

The party claims it has provided free medical services to more than 2 000 people in the regions across the republic.

“Why wouldn’t they care for the lack of seeds and opportunities to get medical services in previous years, but remembered about it right before the elections? It is an obvious bribe and a violation of the Law on Political Parties and the Electoral Code. But no one can violate the law and feel free unless he has the President’s sponsorship. I run into conclusion that they are acting under the President’s patronage,” says vice-chairman of the “National Unity” Party Alexan Karapetyan.

Gurgen Arsenyan, Chairman of the United Labor Party believes the factor of bribes given to voters is overrated.

“I am sure, this way or the other, 50 percent of the voters vote according to their beliefs and political preferences. A voter may take the bribe and still vote for the one he prefers,” says Arsenyan.

Public perception of bribes for votes was shown in a recent survey sponsored by IREX and conducted in eight neighborhoods of Yerevan in August. Twenty percent said they had been offered a bribe for votes, listing monetary payments of 3000-5000 drams, electricity payments and new jobs as examples. Nearly 78 percent of those surveyed answered they had not been offered a bribe, with a fair number actually expressing regret. ("I would have taken one if it had been offered," said one participant.)

Samvel Nikoyan, member of the Republican Party council says he does not like the distribution of potatoes and wheat seeds organized by the “Prosperous Armenia” either, but the only thing he can undertake against it is to speak about it.

“I can’t go to the villages and take the potatoes from the people and hide the potatoes and tell them not to take because it is bribe. But bribes are distributed also by the opposition. The difference is in the amount of the ‘benevolence’,” says Nikoyan. “I am afraid the political and ideological struggle will move to the field of seed distribution.”