ARMENIAN PARTIES MAKE LAVISH JOBS AND PAY PLEDGES
Politicians respond to public concerns about low living standards, but it's unclear whether pledges will be honoured beyond election day.
By Naira Melkumyan
4 May 2012
Parties campaigning for Armenia’s May 6 parliamentary election are focusing on social and economic issues rather than foreign policy, for the first time for many years.
The shift in focus has surprised political observers in the country, who have got used to parties talking about the Nagorny Karabakh dispute with Azerbaijan, the Armenian genocide and the troubled relationship with Turkey.
However, some analysts say the proposals on offer from the various parties look like populist promises to increase public spending without a clear plan as to how this could be funded.
“This time, three or four parties have presented voters with programmes containing concrete measures that I don’t recall seeing in any previous election,” Tatul Manaseryan, head of the Alternative research centre, said. “All the programmes bear many similarities. In most if not all cases, we’re talking mainly about promises to provide jobs. They forget that we’re having a parliamentary election, and parliament does not create jobs.”
Eight parties and a coalition of smaller ones are fighting for places in parliament. Most opinion polls suggest that the pro-government Republican Party and its coalition partners the Prosperous Armenia and Rule of Law parties will win seats, as will the opposition Armenian National Congress, Dashnaktsutyun and Heritage parties.
Opinion surveys such as one conducted by Russian pollster VTsIOM for Shant television indicate that most Armenians see social problems as the highest priority. Some 51 per cent of respondents in that poll said it was unemployment that worried them most, while another 25 per cent named low living standards.
The unemployment rate in the country is officially 6.2 percent, but that figure conceals the large numbers of people who have gone abroad in search of work.
Political parties both in government and in opposition have responded by tailoring their campaigns to meet these public concerns.
“Economic development will be directed towards providing people with work and a decent salary,” President Serzh Sargsyan, head of the Republican Party, said in a speech he made in Sisian, a town in the southern Syunik region.
Now that the institutions of state and national defence had been built up, Sargsyan said, “we can concentrate on resolving the problems facing all citizens and on improving their standard of living – which is no less important”.
Tatev Sargsyan, an analyst with the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, said the various parties had made plenty of promises, “but they rarely give an answer as to how they plan to do it. All the parties focus on people’s difficult social circumstances and the problems facing rural areas and small and medium-sized businesses, but only a few are proposing systemic reforms”.
The Rule of Law party, for example, “is talking about numerous social reforms, raising pensions and salaries, and creating jobs. There are a lots of proposals to draft and implement whole programmes, but what these programmes are and how they will be implemented is not stated,”
Opposition party pledges are in similarly optimistic vein.
The Armenian National Congress wants to double state pensions and raise average monthly wages to 245,000 drams, around 620 US dollars.
Hrant Bagratyan, a former prime minister, said his party would fund the increases by curbing Armenia’s oligarchs and ending monopolies.
“We are not promising to create jobs, but to create the conditions for people to be self-employed,” he said. “Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan [former and current presidents] have talked every year about creating 50,000 to 100,000 jobs, but in the last 12 years the number of unemployed people has risen from 80,000 or 90,000 people to 302,000. The ANC says it will create 500,000 entrepreneurs by lifting the monopolies so that people can take an active part in the economy.”
If elected, the socialist Dashnaktsutyun party would create 220,000 new jobs, raise wages at least fourfold for police, soldiers and healthcare workers, and substantially increase child benefits, according to Arsen Hambardzumyan, a former labour minister. The Heritage Party is making similar promises – creating more workplaces, and raising average monthly wages to 200,000 drams and the minimum wage to 80,000 drams.
Experts question whether the wage increases on offer are at all possible.
“At least half the workforce – 550,000 people – now earn less than
80,000 drams. The opposition knows this, and is just trying to fool people,” Karlen Khachatryan, a lecturer at Yerevan State University, said. “A sharp increase in the minimum wage could have negative consequences – increasing the size of shadow or concealed employment and spurring inflation. Increasing average wages can only be done by reducing unemployment and improving labour productivity. But you can’t achieve that in a month or a year; you need a long-term policy.”
Khachatryan said parties should avoid making populist promises that would do more harm than good.
“Combating the shadow economy and the monopolies in a short-term way cannot be effective. Systemic, well-thought-out steps are needed.
Citing figures and making declarations are no more than populism unless they’re underpinned by serious analysis.”
Now the parties have to convince the average voter that they will stick by their pledges. Judging by the reactions of people like Yerevan resident Rita Sargsyan, 56, that will take some doing.
“Both on the right and on the left, everyone is promising mountains of gold – high wages and pensions. But once they come to power, they’ll forget all about it,” she said. “I’m fed up even listening to them.
Many of them have been in power before, and others are in power now, but the situation hasn’t changed much. They should try living on these [current] wages and pensions.”
Naira Melkumyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.
ARMENIAN ELECTION: "STAKES COULD NOT BE HIGHER"
Politicians must restore slipping public confidence through fair elections and commitment to reform.
By Richard Giragosian
As Armenians prepare to go to the polls on May 6 to elect a new parliament, the stakes could hardly be higher. This election is one of the biggest challenges the current government has faced, for two main reasons.
First, the public as a whole has become noticeably less apathetic, and expects this election to be run significantly better than previous ones. This does not necessarily mean people believe the government’s pledge of a free and fair vote, but it is clear that most want to hold officials to that promise.
This election is also subject to a higher degree of international scrutiny than before, as it is seen as test of the credibility of President Serzh Sargsyan’s administration, in terms both of his stated commitment to democracy, and of his sincerity about delivering on pledges he has made.
Another factor that makes this ballot particularly important is that it is the first election since the February 2008 presidential contest, which resulted in clashes between police and opposition supporters that left at least ten people dead and many more injured.
So the forthcoming election offers an important opportunity for the authorities to overcome the legacy of mistrust and of perceived lack of legitimacy that has hung over Sargsyan’s administration ever since the crisis.
Unfortunately, however, neither the recent local elections nor the statements coming from officials indicate that the government realises how important this poll is. There are in fact few grounds for confidence that the vote will meet people’s expectations.
Nonetheless, the election reflects a major shift in Armenian politics.
Specifically, the traditional political model, defined by a conflict between government and opposition, has changed, and the main dynamic is the serious and deepening rivalry within the ruling coalition. This unprecedented rift has even led to violence in the run-up to the election.
The confrontation pits the ruling Republican Party, the country’s largest political party led by President Sargsyan, against its erstwhile allies from Prosperous Armenia, a junior partner in the governing coalition. Prosperous Armenia is led by businessman Gagik Tsarukyan, a supporter and close associate of former President Robert Kocharyan.
As the Republican Party attempts to weaken Prosperous Armenia during campaigning, the conflict is escalating. The Republicans may still hold the initiative and enjoy the incumbent’s advantage of having “administrative resources” at its disposal, but they are made vulnerable by their over-confidence, exacerbated by a tendency to underestimate their opponents.
Prosperous Armenia has yet to fight back or counter these moves. That suggests that either its leadership has not yet decided on an effective strategy for doing so, or that it is simply unable to respond.
The ruling elite will be further endangered if it ignores popular demands for lasting change and real reforms.
If this election is not run better than previous flawed ballots, there will be a price to pay. The potential consequences are not restricted to international pressure and censure – there will be a reaction from within Armenian society, which is displaying a more dynamic level of civic activism on matters ranging from the environment to broader issues of social inequality. Society has changed, and people are no longer content to witness yet another round of flawed, fixed elections.
This simmering sense of frustration and discontent is rooted in more than the denial of a real choice or voice in political life; it also stems from years of widening wealth disparities and a pronounced lack of economic opportunity for the average Armenian.
This undercurrent of discontent is increasing, especially as the government can no longer claim to be presiding over the kind of economic growth that it used in the past to justify shortcomings in reform and democratisation. The true face of Armenia’s economy has been exposed – years of double-digit growth have resulted only in glaringly obvious socioeconomic inequalities.
As well as creating divisions along social and economic lines, the wealth and income disparities are geographic, as well. Economic activity and opportunity are over-concentrated in the capital Yeravan and other urban centres, creating an urban-rural divide and significant regional imbalances. This is underlined by the wide variance in the quality and accessibility of essential public services like health, education and welfare.
Within this broader context, the more fundamental challenge to stability in Armenia is the need for economic change and reform. But unless this election is a great improvement on its predecessors, the government that emerges from it will lack both a firm mandate to lead and the political will to address these economic problems.
To achieve lasting stability and genuine legitimacy, this election must be an opportunity for politicians to learn to govern and not simply rule. If they miss that opportunity, what is now a crisis of confidence could slide into a dangerously explosive situation.
Richard Giragosian is director of the Regional Studies Centre, an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia.