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Controversial Elections... 03/13/2003
Controversial Elections Reflect
Armenian Society's Shortcomings

By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier

Any fair-minded and concerned Armenian who has closely followed the Armenian
presidential campaign and the subsequent elections must be troubled by the
turmoil it has created in the fragile homeland.
While the supporters of President Robert Kocharian are calling on Armenians
to rally behind the re-elected head of state, those backing the opposition
presidential candidate Stepan Demirjian are refusing to accept the
legitimacy of the election.

Several international organizations have issued highly critical reports
pointing out the violations and suggesting changes in Armenia's electoral
process. These monitoring groups have issued similar reports after previous
Armenian elections. Despite the fact that many of their recommendations have
been adopted and the electoral laws and procedures have been improved, the
problems do not seem to go away.

The truth is that Armenia, like all other former Soviet republics, has been
caught up in such turmoil during every election since independence. In my
opinion, no matter what the foreign observers report, Armenia will continue
to experience such problems as long as Armenians themselves do not make a
firm commitment to respect the rule of the law, not just in the elections,
but in every aspect of the system governing their lives. Even though the
preponderance of responsibility falls on those in power, the respect for law
and order must be shared by every segment of Armenian society, including the
government and the opposition.

Independently of the judgments made by foreign election monitors, Armenians,
first of all, should set the highest possible standards for themselves, so
that their own people could enjoy all the rights and freedoms that they are
entitled to. Secondarily, since Armenians have decided to join the Council
of Europe and have become signatories to various international instruments,
they have an additional obligation to observe these universally accepted
standards.

Even though Armenian society cannot be completely transformed overnight,
Armenians should strive to gradually make structural as well as functional
changes in their government. The same high ethical standards should apply to
those they support as well as those they oppose. The first priority should
be, making a firm commitment to reject everyone who does not operate within
the confines of law and order. This would mean that, henceforth, Armenians
would refuse to allow a whole slew of wrongs that are prevalent both in the
way the country is run. There should be zero tolerance for corruption,
nepotism, cronyism, defamatory accusations in newspapers, unfair business
practices, tax dodging, crooked officials, dishonest judges, selective
prosecution, arbitrary imprisonment, etc.

Once such a commitment is made, those who deviate from these standards
should be ostracized by Armenian society. Crooks and criminals should be
taken off the streets and sentenced to long jail terms by tough, yet honest
judges; everyone, including those with connections to certain circles, must
pay their fair share of taxes; a select group of businessmen should not
enjoy an unfair advantage over their competitors; yellow journalists should
no longer be able to defame people on a regular basis and remain in the news
business; and candidates and their supporters should not be able to buy
votes.

Only after Armenian society makes such a commitment to itself, it would be
possible to improve all aspects of people's lives, including elections. A
panel of experts could then be convened to completely overhaul Armenia's
electoral laws.
Armenia has no time to waste. Already this week, preparations have started
for the May 25th parliamentary elections. Unless immediate steps are taken,
Armenians could experience yet another controversial election.

Despite the many shortcomings of the recent elections, there were several
very positive developments which should not be overlooked:
1) The opposition candidates, despite their lack of trust in the judicial
system, used all legal avenues to register their complaints, including
filing lawsuits with the local courts and the Constitutional Court to
contest the violations and to challenge the outcome of the elections.
2) For the first time since independence, the two presidential candidates
faced each other in a nationally televised debate which gave the citizens of
Armenia an opportunity to compare them and make an informed choice. Even
though the debate should have been better organized, it created a positive
precedent for all future elections.
3) The hundreds of thousands of Armenians who went out to vote for both
candidates and participated in various public rallies, showed that Armenians
are highly interested in the political process and hope that elections and
other public actions can make a difference in their lives. This is very
positive. Such political activism should be encouraged. A politically mature
and active public is the basic foundation on which one can build a
democratic society.

Armenia could do better. However, elections cannot be improved in isolation.
They are a part and parcel of the way Armenian society conducts itself in
all other areas. Better elections can be held only after Armenians commit to
governing themselves with fairness and transparency. Those concerned about
the way the election was conducted could help improve it by contributing to
the transformation of all other aspects of Armenian society!
 
march 13, 2003
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