Those who choose to sell their vote are to be penalized, as are the politicians buying them
Residents of Yerevan will have the opportunity to participate in the early election of members of the Council of City Elders that will be held on 23 September. In order to make elections more honest and fair, the authorities have initiated urgent changes to Armenia’s legislation.
Voter bribery is commonplace in Armenia, with some voters even demanding rewards for their vote. Those who intend to win these votes resort to paving roads, write-off debts and do other favours in addition to simply paying them large sums of money. The new government which came to power after the peaceful ‘Velvet Revolution’ earlier this year is set to eradicate pre-election bribes. In order to ensure that the elections proceed in a fair manner, the government has adopted draft legislative amendments to existing criminal and criminal procedure codes and that of administrative offences. The bill was rushed to parliament for approval and unanimously accepted by all parties.
Provisions that have changed
According to the current law, charges for bribing voters with money, food or valuable items could be brought to candidates, parties and political factions. Charges could also include the promise to provide these goods or services – including promises under the pretext of charity – before, during or after the campaign trail. This would also include the day of the elections.
Those who interfered with anyone exercising their right to choose or exercise their powers to participate in the organizing of elections, were previously punished in the form of imprisonment for a period of two to five years.
After the implementation of the new legislation, penalties for electoral violations will be tougher, with four to six years of imprisonment or a fine of 2.5-3 million drams (USD 5,175 – 6,210).
Under previous legislation, electoral violations such as the falsification of election results or vote tampering carried a period of three to five years imprisonment. This sentence has been extended to between four and eight years imprisonment.
Furthermore, accepting bribes from voters is now a criminal offence.
According to the Armenian Constitution, voters in elections and referendums have the right to privacy and voting is done in secret. Therefore, it is stipulated that voters and political organizations will be fined for the publication of ballots. A fine of 100 to 200 times the minimum wages is applicable if a voter was forced to publish their marked ballot in any form, photo or video, even if they announced their vote voluntarily but out for personal reasons.
According to the Law on Minimum Wage, a minimum wage is 55,000 drams per month (USD 113). However, according to the same law, for the purpose of calculating a fine, the amount of the minimum wage is 1,000 drams (slightly more than USD 2). Therefore, we are talking about a fine to the amount of 100 to 200 thousand drams (between USD 207 and 414).
Since it is difficult to distinguish between giving charity to voters and bribing voters, charitable actions during the election period will be punishable by law. Charities who are found to be guilty of these offence can face imprisonment for a period of two to six years or be given a fine.
During the discussion on the proposed amendments to the legislation, Prime Minister Pashinyan opposed the suggestion that inexpensive goods with the name or symbols of the party, or the name or surname of the candidate, should not be considered a bribe. He insisted that one should not underestimate the motive of election participants who distribute for example jam or bread, in packages carrying their image or logo.
The change in legislation project was developed due to the transformation of the country following the revolution months earlier. The new government was formed, which intends to hold free and fair elections. It is expected that unscrupulous candidates and parties will now be deprived of the opportunity to bribe voters. On the whole, it is anticipated that people’s confidence in the election process and results will be restored.
The project was developed by the Commission on Reforming the Electoral Legislation under the guidance of the Prime Minister. The Ministry of Justice, the prosecutor’s office, the special investigation unit, the police and the investigative committee all participated.
Past incidents of voter bribery
The process of bribing voters to influence the outcome of the elections has developed almost from the onset of Armenia’s post-Soviet independence and this practice can be traced back to the 1995 elections. By 2012, bribery of voters has become an integral part of the elections in Armenia.
From election to election, new bribery mechanisms appeared as they were perfected throughout new campaigns. And receivers of bribes increased the minimum fee for their service from five thousand drams to ten thousand (between USD 10 and 20).
During the course of the pre-election campaign leading up to the parliamentary elections in 2017, one of the wealthiest businessmen, politician Gagik Tsarukyan was actively engaged in charity work. He gave money for medical procedures and gas supply infrastructure and promised that his plant would buy agricultural products from farmers at high prices. The Central Election Commission warned him then that he was breaking the law.
The Offices of many candidates were engaged in paving roads during the election trail. For example, Arakel Movsisyan called in a paving crew right during a meeting with voters in the village of Tsakhkalanj.
There was talk about the legalization of illegal construction and even the distribution of antennas. People have been given food such as flour, sugar, or eggs. One well-known businessman gave out 40 thousand drams (USD 82) to teachers of one of the administrative districts of Yerevan.
Incidentally, during the 2017 elections for the Council of Elders of Yerevan, the nominee of the Elk Political Party for the post of Yerevan mayor, MP Nikol Pashinyan offered to compensate those who didn’t accept bribes 15 thousand drams (USD 31) from government funds. This proposal was also regarded as a bribe and rejected.
After the end of the election, there were cases when the losing candidates tried to recover the amounts given to voters. This was reported for example in the communities of Jajur in the Shirak region, the Ani Quarter of the city of Gyumri and the village of Basen.
One of the main reasons for voter bribery is impunity. Bribery cases are rarely brought to justice, as the interests of both parties – givers and the bribers – coincide.
Nevertheless, several criminal cases have been initiated in Armenia’s recent history.
On 27 February 2013, a criminal case was presented after bribes were paid by the head of the community of Varagavan of the Tavush region. He paid a villager 5,000 drams as a bribe. In October 2016, the head of the Kutakan community Mikael Khachatryan was also charged with paying bribes. Here the bribe amount was higher – 20,000 drams (USD 41). Both went unpunished. On 6 May 2012, Shoghik Melkonyan, director of the Mher Mkrtchyan Museum gave bribes. She was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, but only served a month behind bars.
The new government is trying to prosecute perpetrators, even retroactively. On 16 July 2018 the police reported that the head of the Malyshka community, Mher Movsisyan received 13 million drams personally from the candidate Ashot Arsenyan. He had to guarantee 1,300 votes for this amount. On 24 July, Egine Pogharyan was arrested after he promised bribes during the elections to the Council of Elders of Yerevan for votes in favour of former mayor Taron Margaryan
The new government’s approach
The new government is determined to eradicate pre-election bribery of voters.
“Everyone must go to court … People who buy elections for money should be ousted from politics altogether, because by choosing someone for a kilogram of rice, you give him the right to rob you,” said Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on 10 August 2018 at a meeting with residents of the Tavush region.
Many in Armenia now hope that the elections will be held fair and free without bribes.
International incidents of voter bribing
Armenian voters aren’t the only ones who vote in exchange for material benefits. The bribery of voters is common all around the world.
On 8 February 2017 Reuters reported that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was accused of handing out bribes worth about one million dollars during the presidential campaign of 2014.
In September 2016, Interfax reported that the votes of Russian voters were bought for three litres of beer a voice. At the same elections held in Astrakhan, the head of the district election commission received complaints about the distribution of bribes in the form of sausages and 500 rubles.
On 26 March 2017, the police arrested the head of the commission of the polling station of the Polish village of Krusovitsa for handing out bribes to the amount of 15 Euros.
On 18 March 2016, the Bucharest court sentenced the Romanian deputy Florin Popescu to two years imprisonment for distributing 60 tons of fried chicken in 2012.
On 19 February 2014 billionaire senator Serge Dasoy was arrested in Paris as he gave bribes to voters in the form of food and seven to ten euros to potential voters in the election of the mayor of Corbeil-Esson.
The American press wrote on 7 November 2012 that supporters of US President Barack Obama in Ohio presented a sandwich and cola a few minutes before the election to one voter, and a bottle of whiskey to another.
And in one of the poorest countries of Latin America, Honduras, the candidate from the ruling National Party in the capital known for its murders, gave coffins to poor families as bribes.