With political jockeying already underway in advance of Armenia’s parliamentary vote next spring, civil society activists are pondering ways to use the Internet to promote electoral transparency.
Since the last parliamentary vote in 2008, Internet access has boomed in Armenia, experiencing 700-percent growth from 2009 to 2010 alone, according to data compiled by the Public Services Regulatory Commission. At present, roughly half the population is now able to obtain news and information via online outlets. Activists are hopeful that the Internet’s popularity can help address one of the most problematic areas of past elections, not only in Armenia but in most post-Soviet states – the manipulation of media outlets to favor selected candidates.
Not only can the Internet contribute to a more lively civic debate during the campaign, facilitating the broad dissemination of a variety of viewpoints, it can be utilized as a means to improve media monitoring, suggested Varuzhan Hoktanian, the executive director of the Yerevan office of the international watchdog group, Transparency International.
Hoktanian and other leading civil society activists participated in a conference, held October 6-8 in Yerevan, that considered ways to catalyze democratization in Armenia. The conference, titled What Future for Democracy and Civil Society, was co-sponsored by the Open Society Foundations-Armenia (OSFA) and Counterpart International Armenia. [Editor’s note: EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Foundations, which, like OSFA, is part of the Soros Foundations Network].
According to Larisa Minasyan, the executive director of OSFA, the conference sought to create “a platform for new ideas and forward thinking, and promote an open, public debate” on democratization issues. Minasyan voiced hope that the ideas arising out of the conference could inject a measure of clarity into what she characterized as an “inconclusive picture for the future of democratic governance” in Armenia.
Civil society activists have high hopes that the Internet can help encourage the opening of society, providing a vital tool for watchdogs to spread their messages. Some participants noted the success of a grassroots group called We Won’t Stay Quiet (Chenk Lrelu), run by a team of four 20-somethings. The group’s online video reports, distributed via YouTube, have highlighted an array of social issues, including the hazing of military conscripts and faulty historical preservation projects. Public outrage generated by the reports, in some instances, prompted government action to address flaws.
Such groups could help promote transparency during the election season, noted a conference participant, Ashot Melikian, chair of the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression. Internet watchdogs could play a particularly important role during the early phase of the campaign by calling attention to media-based dirty tricks and slanted reporting. “Taking into consideration Internet access and the use of different technologies which will help record [election] violations and distribute the information through the Internet, I think the authorities should make every effort to ensure fair and transparent elections,” Melikian said.
While the Internet may prove a valuable tool for activists, it can’t serve as a guarantor of a free-and-fair election process, stressed Transparency International’s Hoktanian. While “there are more tools to point out violations [of election laws], … those who count the votes still remain the same,” Hoktanian noted.
Hermine Harutiunian, the chief spokesperson for Central Election Commission, sought to reassure conference participants that the electoral results in 2012 would be an open and accurate reflection of voter preferences. The modernization of “the computer network” and other technical equipment will enable to posting of regular online updates of election returns, thus promoting transparency, Harutiunian said.
The conference also spent time considering the state of Armenia’s judiciary, specifically the perception that Armenian judges are subordinate to the executive branch. Participants noted that following election-related violence in 2008, the courts were widely perceived to be used by President Serzh Sargsyan’s administration as a tool to punish government critics. Arevhat Grigorian, a media expert at the Yerevan Press Club, also pointed out that the judicial system went along with a government move to silence online media outlets that attempted “to publish anything other than government statements” during the immediate aftermath of the 2008 clashes.
In contrast to the media environment, not much has changed since 2008 when it comes to judicial independence: the government retains a far-reaching ability to influence judicial decisions, said Hrayr Ghukasian, a law professor at Yerevan State University.
"The Justice Council of Armenia, which has several powers like the approval of the judge list, appointment of judges, disciplinary punishment of judges, is not, in fact, an independent judicial body because it is the president of Armenia who makes the final decision on all these issues," Ghukasian told conference participants.
Sargsyan is on record as being committed to holding a free-and-fair vote next spring. In a June 22 speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Sargsyan stated that “free and fair elections are not enough. … It is also necessary that the elections be perceived as such by the public.”
Conference participants expressed concern that past electoral irregularities – combined with the government’s inability to aggressively address pressing economic and social issues, and the opposition’s difficulties in offering tangible alternatives – has alienated Armenia’s electorate. Apathy could translate into low voter turnout in the spring.
Fifty-five percent of the 1,650 voters polled recently by sociologist Aharon Adibekian expressed interest in the parliamentary vote; 30 percent expressed no interest. “I am surprised,” Adibekian told EurasiaNet.org. “I was expecting a worse result.”
A major challenge for civil society groups will be to find ways to get citizens engaged with the political process. “Democratic development” is “a process of growth, setbacks, lessons learned, improvements and the ability to be self-critical.” Alex Sardar, chief of party for Counterpart International Armenia.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.