Friday, February 15, 2008
In Armenian Politics, Candidates' Wives Stay Behind the Scenes
Marianna Grigoryan: 02/15/08

This story was updated on 16 February to correct a population statistic.

Former US President Bill Clinton may have presented his wife and current presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton to voters as a "two-for-one" deal, but in Armenia, election campaigns and candidates’ wives decidedly do not mix.

That message was reinforced February 13, when presidential candidate Serzh Sarkisian came to a Yerevan church to celebrate a traditional festival for newlyweds. Public curiosity was aroused not so much by the sight of the usually phlegmatic prime minister, white rose in hand, attempting to dance with the brides. The interest came from the rare appearance of his wife, Rita.

It was perhaps the first time that Rita Sarkisian, a music teacher in late middle age, has been seen at a campaign event with her husband.

But the Sarkisian campaign says that they do not see her absence as a political loss.

"What need is there to involve the prime minister’s wife in the election campaign?" wondered Eduard Sharmazanov, spokesperson for the governing Republican Party of Armenia, which Sarkisian heads. "It does not correspond with the tactics that we have adopted. The prime minister, both during the parliamentary and presidential elections, was campaigning alone and we think that this is the right approach for success."

In a traditional, male-dominated society like Armenia, sociologists say, the notion of a candidate’s wife taking part in a campaign remains a risky proposition. "Politics in Armenia is viewed as strictly ▒a man’s business’ and, according to our Armenian mentality, a woman must not interfere with it," commented Aharon Adibekian, director of the Sociometer polling organization. "By . . . having [their wives] take part in their election campaigns, candidates run the risk of it having a negative impact on their progress, rather than it winning them votes."

Involving a candidate’s family in an Armenian election campaign would require the use of specialists and consultants, Adibekian added. "For that, however, one needs to be politically mature in the first place," he continued. "A wife should also be prepared politically to know where the limits are, and how to behave."

The candidates -- and their wives -- largely agree.

Presidential candidate Vazgen Manukian, leader of the National Democratic Union, describes his wife, Varduhi, a mathematician and computer programmer, as "completely politically mature," and capable of providing "serious help" to his campaign, but cautions that society is not yet ready for such assistance.

"Unlike the way it is in the West, women’s involvement in [public life] in Armenia is not yet accepted, and sometimes it may be perceived incorrectly," he told EurasiaNet. Varduhi Manukian reportedly works on her husband’s campaign, but does not appear with him in public.

Rival presidential candidate Artur Baghdasarian, who is considered to be one of the opposition frontrunners, is perhaps the only candidate who speaks about his family during meetings with voters. But Baghdasarian’s wife, Anna, the 30-something director of a language instruction center in Yerevan, is also nowhere to be seen in her husband’s campaign.

Pregnancy, not cultural prejudice, is the cause, according to Susanna Abrahamian, spokesperson for Baghdasarian’s Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) Party. "[F]or sure, it is not encouraged to go to the provinces and get emotional in that condition. Otherwise, believe me; she would be involved as well."

Other wives, however, directly rebuff such a notion. "As an Armenian woman, I think it would be better that I silently assist my husband, rather than show political activism," commented Anush Pluzian, the spouse of presidential candidate Artashes Geghamian, a former mayor of Yerevan and the chairman of the National Unity Party.

The role of an Armenian woman, continued Pluzian, a lecturer at the State Engineering University of Armenia, is to understand her husband, not to "obstruct him."

"I don’t think that my going to voter meetings together with my husband would bring any big change or provide any major help," she said. "I’d better stay at home."

That view is reflected in other aspects of the country’s political life. More than 52 percent of Armenia’s population of 3.22 million are women, according to state statistics, but, in terms of women’s participation in politics, Armenia ranks last in the South Caucasus. Women comprise 9.2 percent of the members of the country’s 131-seat parliament, compared with 11.3 percent in Azerbaijan and 9.4 percent in Georgia. Only one woman has ever run for president in Armenia √ Dignity Party leader Lyudmila Harutiunian in 1998 √ but she withdrew from the race well before election day.

Even for a former First Lady, Lyudmila Ter-Petrosian, wife of opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian, appearing in the public eye is less than an easy fit. A German language specialist by training who once worked as a radio journalist and now heads a humanitarian non-governmental organization, Mrs. Ter-Petrosian stands with the crowds at her husband’s rallies, occasionally in the back rows.

On this point, and possibly no other, the Ter-Petrosian and Sarkisian campaigns agree.

"At this moment, when the election campaign is on, there are perhaps more important things than the inclusion of the first president’s wife in the front rows [at a rally]," affirmed Ter-Petrosian campaign spokesperson Arman Musinian. "There is no need for that."

Practices vary in the region, though. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s Dutch-born wife, Sandra Roelofs, was featured prominently in his recent re-election campaign, singing folk songs at rallies or collecting voters’ written requests. In Azerbaijan, Mehriban Aliyeva, wife of President Ilham Aliyev, is a member of parliament, though reportedly considered off-limits for media criticism.

In Armenia, psychologist Elina Asrian says that voters can perhaps more readily accept scenes from a candidate’s home life than of women as independent political forces, or a candidate’s closest advisor.

"Political ads and election campaigns in Armenia are built on the principle of ▒hero vs. anti-hero’ and here it is, indeed, not correct to involve wives," Asrian commented. "For Armenians, a family is accepted as something sacred, and on that level there is hardly anything higher."

In keeping with that trend, the Ter-Petrosian campaign has reportedly issued a DVD about the ex-president’s family life, while the rival Baghdasarian camp says that one about the 39-year-old former parliamentary speaker will be appearing soon.

But will they win votes? It all depends on the "correct" presentation, stresses election strategist Armen Badalian. "Because no matter how much they talk about European integration," he concluded, "we are still an Asian country."

Editor's Note: Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for the weekly in Yerevan.