Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Power of Us

"In many countries, elections unite people. In your country, your authorities use elections to divide people."
- Roman Udot, 
European Platform for 
Democratic Elections

Maybe we needed to experience this too. Referendum 2015. Maybe this is what had to happen for us to claw and fight our way to that other place. Maybe they had to become more brazen in their criminal actions so that we begin to see the potential power of us, the ordinary citizen. But we aren't ordinary. We are extraordinary. We just need to see it and believe.

Exactly one week ago today, the Armenian people went to the polls to vote on a package of Constitutional reforms and we witnessed yet another vote that was marred by massive violations and electoral irregularities. The subsequent disappointment was familiar. Even before polls closed at 8:00 p.m., we braced ourselves for the results as one violation after another was being reported in real time. 

In the absence of a true, honest and intelligent national dialogue about the reform, in the absence of a relevant opposition that has the ability and credibility to mobilize, and a regime that continues to leave its people unprotected and vulnerable, pushing through a referendum on Constitutional reforms simply compounded the apathy and indifference of an electorate that no longer believes in anything.

For the many beleaguered citizens of this country who did take part in the referendum, the way they voted wasn't about whether or not they live under a particular document - a Constitution - that would determine how they govern and are governed, it was a protest vote, albeit not expressed in the final results. 

But while the disappointment was familiar, it wasn't as deep. It felt different.

Thanks to digital technologies and the mobilization of citizen observers, the vulgarity and criminality of those who took part in falsifying the vote were highlighted in ways that we haven't seen before. 

Those citizen observers, who stood their ground, who knew the law and their rights, who had had enough and were ready to fight tooth and nail to protect the rights of the voters, made a difference albeit small, but a difference nonetheless. Their impact wasn't about the final results but it was about instilling a small seedling of belief in ourselves. 

While the final analysis is yet to be completed, there seems to be enough evidence to suggest that in those precincts where citizen observers were able to make their presence felt, who were able to to push back despite a concerted effort by electoral commission members and proxies of the ruling party to wear them down or get them simply to leave the precincts, the true and free expression of the people was registered - that is, the NO vote won.

Certainly, this time around their efforts did not impact the results, but take a look at how social media is exploding with eyewitness accounts of the violations and you will see how the dynamic is shifting. Online public shaming of those who were part of the fraud machine has forced many of the violators to shut down their Facebook pages because of the onslaught of comments. Information, photos and videos of those electoral commission members and proxies who were responsible for multiple voting, fiddling with the voter registration lists, for ballot stuffing, intimidation, physical violence, obstructing the work of observers and journalists is available for all to see.

The stronger we become, the weaker they become. 

We have two years ahead of us until the 2017 parliamentary elections. If for one moment, we put aside all political affiliations, and say that we, the citizens, the concerned citizens, are going to work together to form our own army of observers, to wage a war against the systematic attempts at obliterating the institutions of democracy in our country, to hold the authorities to account, to force them to comply, to make rigging elections harder for them by showing up. Showing UP. Showing up to vote, to observe, to raise our voices, to register violations, to follow through...

If we, the people, can cover all 1997 electoral stations throughout the country with well informed citizen observers; if we show up to the vote, if we show up to say that my ballot is an inalienable civic right and responsibility and I am going to utilize that right, the harder we will make it for them to rig the vote.

But our engagement as ordinary citizens is not enough. We need political parties that are credible, organized, internally democratic, who have grass roots support, a clear ideology, a platform for reform and a plan for the future and most importantly are not formed around one specific leader or oligarch. Time will tell if this new parliamentary system envisioned under the new Constitution will contribute to the development of political parties. 

And what about those who boycotted the vote on principle or who didn't show up because they believed the results would be manipulated, those who didn't care one way or the other? They are equally part of the problem. 

We need to be present, we need to show up, we need to understand that the majority of the population in Armenia can dethrone a minority regime whose only vested interest is the perpetuation of their own vested interest.