Armenian Parliament E-lections
Ahead of the upcoming May 6, 2012, parliamentary election for all 131 seats of ex-Soviet Armenia’s National Assembly, an opposition rally in capital Yerevan featured not only the country’s tricolor but also a purple flag with eight white letters. “I brought the Facebook flag to the rally to show the government that now there is a unique, reliable alternative [for information] to be used by everyone,” explained the 24-year-old activist to EurasiaNet.
And he is not the only one using a Facebook logo. The ruling Republican Party of Armenia has a song-ad inundated with enlarged cardboard cutouts of the thumbs-up “LIKE” icon of Facebook. [Editorial note: the YouTube video appears to have be taken down] Is the Armenian government trying to claim its share in what this author has termed click-to-share democracy? Perhaps for the election cycle.
Only four years ago, during the February 19, 2008 presidential election, there was not widespread prospect for digital activism, except for videos taped by cell phones and posted on YouTube. When ten people died in the March 1 protests challenging the election outcome, the Armenian President declare a state of emergency, which limited local media coverage of political events to copy-and-pasting government press releases.
Facebook did exist in 2008, but for very few Armenian citizens. The platform for information beside cell phone videos posted on YouTube were a few blogs based outside Armenia, like my own Blogian. I blogged during the bloody protest (after a text message from a friend woke me up) and continued posting news and accounts in the days to come, partly based on personally-transmitted accounts from Armenia. My readership instantly jumped to over 10,000.
Unlike Blogian, there are many active blogs out there today that will be blogging the elections. But while blogs may produce useful content, Facebook is the place to share news items, photographs, videos, and even expose voting fraud. In the words of EurasiaNet:
Arguably, sensations like the Yerevan apartment that somehow managed to accommodate 101 registered voters also are contributing to voter curiosity about [Facebook]. Twenty-five-year-old Facebook user Edgar Tamarian posted about the apparently unusually spacious flat after finding it on a list of registered voters on the national police website; all of the supposed voters hailed from Georgia’s ethnic Armenian village of Nardevan. The police claimed the entry was “a mistake” that they had somehow overlooked.
Facebook is not the only platform for information sharing. An interactive observer project, iDitord, maps reports of voting irregularities throughout Armenia.
But watchdog activism doesn’t match the volume of political ads by the participating parties. The best guide to the sea of advertisements is a Facebook group called Political Ads, which tries to feature all ads on its wall, asking representatives of the political parties partaking in the parliamentary elections to post their promotional videos.
Political ads somewhat reflect resources, with the ruling party having what seem to be unlimited ads, some of them artistically rich and others animated. In one day alone, about 30 ads were posted by rparmenia, the official YouTube account by the Republican Party of Armenia.
One ad is a rap called “Havatank vor Pokhenk” or “Let’s Believe so We Can Change It” (the official slogan) by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia. Trying to be hip, it is instead accused of plagiarizing a Russian song and Barack Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In.” But the worst part of the ad may be the line “let every man have at least one wife,” which, unfortunately, will not even bother many Armenians. A better and possibly the most expensive ad is a song with lots of energetic young people, who are waving cardboard cutouts of thumbs-up — the Facebook “like” logo all over Armenia.
Surprisingly, there are not as many ads (at least online) by the richest man in the race (and in the country) Gagik Tsarukyan and his Prosperous Armenia Party, recently joined by high-profile former Minister of Foreign Affairs Vartan Oskanian. It is curious that Tsarukyan is even running, since, according to the Civilitas Foundation — a civil society group established by Oskanian himself, the business tycoon missed the entire September 13–December 8, 2011 session of the parliament, along with a member of the Republican Party, and two members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), an opposition party.
ARF may not have good parliamentary attendance record, but its ads arguably have the most detailed and informative — as opposed to emotional — content, detailing the particular steps that it would (like to) take, ranging from reducing the number of deputies, halting development in downtown Yerevan, to recalling Armenia’s signature from the controversial Armenian-Turkish protocols. (ARF is in controversy itself, with one of its poster girls not wanting her photo used by the party). But ARF is also not shying away from spicy entertainment. An animated ad features an unpleasant oligarch, generally associated with the ruling Republican Party and its wavering ally Prosperous Armenia, telling viewers not to vote for ARF as it would make Armenia a better country.
Another opposition bloc, the Armenian National Congress (a coalition and also a rebranding of the controversial Armenian Popular Movement, the party of independence and war with Azerbaijan, led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan), has ads that are basically clips from rally speeches. Probably the least expensive political ads of the parliamentary elections.
Another opposition party, Heritage, has an ad, called Voice of the People, with several satisfied citizens, including small business owners, recounting specific instances of successful support from Heritage. That’s not surprising given that Heritage is not only led by the popular California-born lawyer and Armenia’s first Foreign Minister Raffi Hovanissian, but also has arguably the people’s parliamentarian and most famous woman deputy — Zaruhi Postanjyan, often seen and very loudly heard — in videos of nonpartisan protests, from environmental issues to mistreatment of army conscripts.
But the most widely seen ad of Heritage (and possibly the entire election), is the popular song “Sareri Kami” (“Wind of the Mountains”), sung by its iconic composer Ruben Hakhverdyan and another famous singer, Harout Pamboukjian. The two singers’ endorsement is important as, unlike younger pop artists, the two are not generally seen as opportunistic.
While Armenians will remain pessimistic about elections for a long time, 2012 may be the first year when the government will fail to silence or minimize reports of irregularities. Facebook may not directly make Armenia’s elections more democratic, but it will give voters a much needed space for sharing and learning otherwise unreported news and accounts. Armenia’s click-to-share democracy helps make the “e” in elections electronic and eclectic.