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In Armenia, Unprecedented Outreach Ahead Of Elections

Nikol Pashinian, a leader of the opposition Yelk bloc, campaigns in a Yerevan neighborhood, on March 11.
Nikol Pashinian, a leader of the opposition Yelk bloc, campaigns in a Yerevan neighborhood, on March 11.

YEREVAN -- Centrist opposition leader Nikol Pashinian stands outside an office building in western Yerevan's Malatia-Sebastia neighborhood, megaphone in hand, to take his criticism of the current government to the streets.

Prime Minister Karen Karapetian stages public meetings in small towns across the country, where he endorses the right-wing, ruling Republican Party of Armenia and fields questions directly from those who will cast ballots on April 2.

Gagik Tsarukian, pro-Russia leader of the center-right Tsarukian Alliance, is handed personal letters by dozens of voters who crowd around the millionaire former wrestling coach before each of his rallies -- often delaying his speeches by half an hour.

Raffi Hovannisian, one of three former ministers in the right-wing ORO Alliance, describes his strategy of shaking hands with everybody he sees as the "Hello Revolution."

More, perhaps, than in any previous Armenian parliamentary elections, candidates and their campaign teams are trying to engage voters directly to win support.

Daniel Ioannisian, program coordinator for the nongovernmental group Union of Informed Citizens, says a major reason is that the April 2 vote is simply more important than previous parliamentary elections.

He says that's because Armenia is now transforming into a parliamentary republic.

Under 2015 constitutional amendments, Armenia's current semipresidential system is being phased out in a transition to be completed when President Serzh Sarkisian's second term ends in 2018.

Ioannisian notes that whoever controls parliament after the April 2 elections will also control the levers of power from 2018.

Supporters take a selfie with Prime Minister Karen Karapetian at an election campaign meeting in the village of Tegh on March 10.
Supporters take a selfie with Prime Minister Karen Karapetian at an election campaign meeting in the village of Tegh on March 10.

New Level Of Competition

But the current campaign tactics also reflect competition among candidates within the same party, a development that has emerged from Armenia's 2016 Electoral Code.

"Previously, we never saw competition within one party because we had a maximum of one candidate in each district from each party," Ioannisian says. "We now have two to 15 candidates from each party in each of Armenia's 13 voting districts. And they are running against each other."

"It's very competitive," Ioannisian said. "We have actually seen candidates from the same party in one district beating each other -- physically fighting."

Indeed, ahead of Armenia's last parliamentary elections, in 2012, 73-year-old pensioner Vera Sevumian says she was never visited by more than one team of campaigners from any political party or bloc.

Now, Sevumian says, campaign workers for numerous candidates from most of the nine competing parties or alliances have knocked on the door of her apartment, in Yerevan's southern Shengavit district.

She says she has been visited by representatives of at least three different Republican Party candidates during the monthlong campaign.

"I don't remember having so many pamphlets coming to me from election candidates before," Sevumian tells RFE/RL.

Cleaner Vote?

Tigran Mukuchian, the head of Armenia's Central Election Commission, says the 2016 Electoral Code puts Armenia on a path to being more democratic.

Mukuchian says the newly introduced balloting system, combined with new monitoring technology at polling stations, also will help prevent the kind of voting irregularities that have damaged the credibility of previous elections in Armenia -- such as ballot-box stuffing or voter-identification fraud.

The opposition Congress-HZhK alliance led by Levon Ter-Petrosian holds an election campaign rally in Yerevan on March 29.
The opposition Congress-HZhK alliance led by Levon Ter-Petrosian holds an election campaign rally in Yerevan on March 29.

But not all political observers in Armenia are convinced.

"This is the illusion of democratic process," says Yuri Manvelian, the co-founder of an independent journalists' network and editor of its website, "The image that you see of officials reaching out to people more than in previous elections, this is really a performance," he tells RFE/RL.

"We are going to these meetings where the prime minister is supposedly reaching out to voters in the regions and in Yerevan," Manvelian says. "We are trying to participate. And the people that we see participating at these meetings, they are schoolteachers or people from the civil services or administrative workers who are being forced by their bosses to go -- or lose their jobs."

Manvelian says state workers, and even employees of private-sector businesses with strong ties to the ruling party, risk losing their jobs if they are seen at an opposition rally.

Ioannisian's Union of Informed Citizens also has documented what it describes as "administrative abuses" by officials in the ruling party -- particular, widespread voter intimidation.

Way Out Alliance leader Pashinian -- an outspoken critic of the ruling Republican Party -- tells RFE/RL he uses a megaphone outside of Republican-controlled businesses or state-run offices because it's the only way to get his message to the employees of government loyalists.

"People are really tired of elections," Manvelian tells RFE/RL. "The most common viewpoint that people are expressing is that nothing will change by elections. Elections as an institution have been discredited by officials in power. But even the opposition is taking part in the illusion as part of this performance."

It's The Economy...

Meanwhile, observers like Manvelian and Ioannisian agree that public anger over Armenia's economic problems is even stronger now than in 2015, when thousands of demonstrators blocked a central boulevard in Yerevan to protest planned electricity-price hikes.

For that reason, they say, issues related to the day-to-day life of Armenians have been the focus of most political parties and alliances during the current election campaign.

Gagik Tsarukian campaigns in Masis on March 24.
Gagik Tsarukian campaigns in Masis on March 24.

Two political forces, Pashinian's Way Out and the Free Democrats Party, have sought to position themselves as more pro-Western than their rivals.

But issues like low salaries, high inflation and unemployment, outward migration, corruption, and problems within the justice system have superseded the question of whether Armenia should remain within the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union or seek closer integration with Europe.

Russian weapons deliveries to Baku were a major issue for Armenians immediately after last year's escalation of skirmishes with Azerbaijan over the latter's breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

But most political parties are now avoiding that sensitive issue, which raises the question of whether Armenia is actually more secure with Russia as its ally.

Gevorg Melikian, a Yerevan-based political analyst who hosts the Status Quo program on Armenian Public Radio, says voters also have been put off by widespread allegations that Armenia's major political parties attempt to buy votes.

The Central Election Commission has warned the Tsarukian Alliance about using the promise of charitable acts to try to win votes.

Tsarukian's eponymous bloc has rejected the reprimand, saying Tsarukian is a philanthropist and his charitable work has nothing to do with the elections.

But RFE/RL has confirmed that many of the personal letters being presented to Tsarukian by voters at his rallies are requests for specific favors.

Mukuchian says the Electoral Code has a very clear rule that money cannot be allocated to voters during the campaigning period in return for the promise of their votes.

But there is nothing in Armenia's current legislation that would prevent candidates from engaging in charity after the elections are over.

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