The campaigning for the May 12 National Assembly elections has officially started as of April 8. Although parties like Prosperous Armenia have already begun hanging gigantic banners promoting their message, others are playing the campaign game by the book. ARF-Dashnaktsutiun plastered posters up and down my street on Sunday—I suppose it is a convenient start since the party’s Supreme Body administration building is only a few blocks away. Basically two posters were being pasted up—one shows a bunch of young adults casually posing in front of the camera, some kneeling, others slouching, but another variation features a photo of what seems to be an extended family. The other companion poster lists specific goals that the party intends to reach.
The message chosen for the campaign slogan is “Our Old Friend is Dashnaktsutiun.” Yet I believe the message would have been much more effective had the phrase “Your Old Friend…” been used instead. “Your” would have suggested that the friend you can depend on, the one that will always stand by you, is there and always has been. Nevertheless the underlying message is clear—ARF is making a strong push to get its program across to the people in a way that has simply not been done before by the party here.
In any case, amongst the several pledges that are listed, four specific points are notable:
- Dashnaktsutiun aims to raise the native population of Armenia to 4 million by 2012, namely by encouraging repatriation.
- Married couples will have monetary incentive for having large families: 200,000 dram for the first and second child born, 2,000,000 dram for the third, and 2,500,000 dram for the fourth. If a family grows to having five children, new housing will be provided.
- The minimum monthly wage will be increased to 50,000 dram starting in 2008.
- Monthly paid pensions will be set at a minimum of 30,000 dram to at least 50,000 dram.
Now, these points are realistic to the extent that if relentlessly hard work is applied they can perhaps be accomplished. They are not overambitious goals, but in order for them to be reached Armenian citizens have to play ball and of course, the party actually has to ensure that the ball is in play. But naturally there are huge obstacles, especially financial.
For one, given the fact that the unofficial and commonly accepted current population figure is 2.5 million, the ARF has its work cut out for it. Even if we entertain that the population is 3 million, which is optimistic at best, you still have to figure out a way to convince 1 million people to return to the country or to move there for the first time, and you have to do it within five years. This perhaps can be best accomplished by making a huge push in worldwide communities where the ARF is based. The point of repatriating the homeland once a free, independent republic is established is in the actual party program and has been there for decades. But this pledge is 16 years overdue; nevertheless it is a start. The question is, how do you persuade comfortable diasporans to make the leap?
Second, ensuring that money is actually available in a dedicated, to-be-established social fund for assisting new families will be a rather great feat. The party is to an advantage in that its party member, Aghvan Vartanyan, is the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs. However, he has been criticized for his lack of urgency in the past. It was only after a series of articles published by Hetq Online in the winter of 2004-2005 about homelessness that the ministry established a temporary shelter for people in housing transition—supposedly this program is still in operation. But you still have to figure out how to establish such a “growing family” fund, how to ensure that money is deposited into that fund accrued from tax collection or whatever other way, and how to prevent a future (or current) minister from sticking his or her sticky fingers into that fund. It will be a daunting, huge undertaking.
Finally, a minimum wage increase was needed probably six years ago at least. I think the current minimum monthly wage is 5,000 dram or some ridiculous amount. Even 50,000 dram, or by today’s current exchange rate just under $140, is still too low considering the fact that the dram has been increasingly getting stronger—it seems to have leveled off at around 360 to the dollar for the last 10 days at least—and the prices for goods have stayed the same or have increased since the rate started dropping steadily from 460 dram to the dollar about 18 months ago, meaning there has been huge inflation in that short amount of time. I have already written about the inflation phenomenon in previous posts. In any case, a guaranteed minimum wage of 50,000 dram enforced by law would of course be welcomed, not to mention a sharp increase in allocated pension payments to Armenia’s retired workforce. You cannot expect anyone to live on an average of 5,000 dram a month no matter what age he or she may be.
I attended a campaign rally that the ARF organized at Charles Aznavour Square--in front of Cinema Moscow--on Monday night. About 2,000 people or possibly more were in attendance, and I would have to say that about half that number were kids under the age of 20. There were youth everywhere. About 100 red flags with the trademark, highly distinctive ARF emblem stenciled on them with gold paint were flying all over—from the upper balcony of the cinema to the street on handheld poles. There were hundreds of people there from the regions—one young man told me that purportedly about 1,500 people from the Ararat region alone were due to show in total. Several ARF leaders spoke at the event, and there was musical entertainment as well. But what really struck me was the turnout and the subsequent excitement. I quite honestly did not expect such a show of support, and it was certainly a fantastic experience to see what was transpiring.
Without a doubt Dashnaktsutiun now has an enormous amount of work to do. Now that it has very clearly, and finally, defined its platform for the next five years at least, it needs to live up to its ambitions, no matter how many seats it wins in the elections. Really, the number of members the party will have serving in parliament should not have anything to do with its ability to realize these pledges, especially given the fact that its members hold several ministry posts. But in order to accomplish its goals, the organization has to make sure that it does not fall against any barriers along the way, namely government-level corruption. And it also has to make sure that its party members holding positions, whether parliament seats or ministries, put the party program first and business interests on the back burner. Already you have one minister buying and selling real estate in the Cascade area and another running a notorious cabaret/strip club. You have other notable party heads co-owning cafés and other business establishments. To own and operate businesses while being a government official is not difficult in Armenia, and arguably everyone has a stake in something lucrative. The thing is that the ARF-Dashnaktsutiun prides itself as being a member of the Socialist International—it indeed sounds like an impressive achievement. But if you look at the party’s presence up until now in public life, it has done for the most part very little to live up to its socialist agenda, and has done nothing to outreach to the masses, instead waiting eternally for people to knock on the ARF door. That is until now.
Now the party must convince the people that it is able to meet the significant challenges that it has identified. If the ARF wants the people’s support, it has to prove to Armenian citizens that it can get the job done without fail. This persuasion must be accomplished through an aggressive, relentless PR campaign, waged apart from its own controlled TV station as well as its weekly newspaper and companion Web site (both called Yerkir). The ARF needs to constantly be in the news, and it must be convincing in that changes are indeed happening. Otherwise people in Armenia will stop taking the party seriously—some actually stopped doing so a while back, particularly when it joined the three-party pro-government coalition bloc a few years ago alongside the Republican Party of Armenia and Country of Law, which was replaced last year by a party so insignificant that no one even bothers talking about it.
I remember distinctly in 2005 the party’s slogan was “ARF-Dashnaktsutiun is 115 years old.” No one seemed to care very much about that except its teary-eyed nostalgic membership perhaps. But this time, the ARF is claiming to be “our old friend.” Let’s hope it really acts like one. Everyone was wondering where that friend had gone off to. Hopefully they will not ever feel that they have been let down.Photo courtesy Onnik Krikorian