BY SUZANNE KHARDALIAN
I am happy to say that my previous article titled “A Frank Discussion about the ARF” has elicited reactions, both positive and very angry. Well, I would not be exposing a big secret if I said that was exactly my intention. I did not intend to upset people, but instead to initiate dialogue and put forward arguments about issues on which discussion is needed and about which formation of a consensus for future action cannot be delayed.
I am very aware that there is a silent majority that has no idea about what to do with the issues I have raised—or with the article for that matter. These are sensitive issues. This is about our future, and we do need a frank discussion.
Among those who had taken time to respond were some who were of the opinion that the concerns I had raised in my column should not have been given space in the ARF-affiliated newspapers. So much for openness! Others were offended that I was unnecessarily defaming the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and its members— that I was stabbing the party and its organizational structure in the back.
However, people were mostly angered by my final statement, which read, “a political organization that accepts its gradual degeneration to become a mere campaign machine is beyond doubt doomed in the long run.”
Today I would like to talk about one important aspect concerning the ARF—especially its activities in Armenia; one that has to do with the scope of the organization’s activities as it relates to what I will describe as the political party’s “footprint,”—its relative “reach” or on-the-ground “presence”—and its ability to connect with voters across a country’s geographic expanse.
Political parties with broad footprint have a local presence in all or most of a country’s electoral districts, while those with a lesser reach are characterized by the absence of a local presence in non-negligible portions of the country. The idea of reach and presence is directly linked to the issue of accountability.
But before talking about accountability, let me further distinguish between three aspects of the footprint. Each of these represents a distinct “transmission belt,” through which political parties, and in this case the ARF, may reach voters and establish relations for democratic accountability: the formal, informal, and civil society footprints.
When I speak about the formal footprint, I have in mind what most closely resembles an organization operating in an entire territory and therefore requires maintaining local branch offices or chapters and affiliated organizations. The ARF excels in this. We have organizations that are affiliated with the ARF ideology and political course, such as youth groups—the AYFs; athletic organizations—the Homenetmen; women’s groups—the ARS, etc. These are organizations that are staffed or volunteer-operated by supporters or partisan cadres some with formalized and official ties to the national-level party organization.
On the other hand the informal footprint is in some sense the mirror image of the “official” local presence, in which developing connections with voters is delegated to non-partisan “stakeholders”—influential individuals, neighborhood leaders, sometimes even religious leaders—who secure voter support and electoral-campaign participation without maintaining formalized and symbolic ties to the ARF as an organization, but who nonetheless maintain a relationship with the party leadership, even on the local level. The ARF has had a long experience in working with these “stakeholders.”
Finally, and this is a very recent development, like other political parties, the ARF and its political figures have tried to contract out their capacity to reach the public more openly, through the mechanism of civil society organizations. However, the approach to this particular footprint has been tenuous at best. The party could have drawn on the support of a number of interest groups, including NGOs, that serve specific interests in the economic and socio-cultural sphere of the Armenian state, but has failed to do so.
The aforementioned forms of outreach that seem so familiar to all of us are not mutually exclusive. But the importance of maintaining these distinctions lies in the fact that they are crucial in explaining our “relationship-building” strategies and our organizational structure.
The motivating question becomes, how does the ARF’s organizational outreach affect its leaders’ ability to engage in strategies for connecting with citizens (clients)? Furthermore, does the ARF’s model and democratic accountability in Armenia allow us to analyze the relationship between its organizational structure and voters?
Why does a party that devotes so much effort to appeal to the electorate exhibit only moderate, not to say poor, success? Why do our efforts not turn into actual voter turnout and support?
What we are seeing today in Armenia is that the ARF’s organizational reach does not function at all. Meanwhile, a notion I will call “clientelism” is gaining ground on the country’s political landscape.
Clientelism is the exchange of goods and services for political support. It is a political system at the heart of which is an asymmetric relationship between groups of political actors, the patrons/oligarchs and clients and political parties. A key to understanding “clientelism” might lie in stressing asymmetries in power or standing.
So “Clientelism” is the effort by politicians to offer citizens “client-like” incentives in order to mobilize them as voters, e.g. paving their neighborhood streets right before elections. A look at how the last three elections were formulated around these services illustrates my point.
While we can talk at length about the causes of this phenomenon, the organizational structure of the ARF, and other political parties for that matter, has never been investigated as the root cause of the situation we find ourselves in today.
So, does the organizational structure of a political party matter for viable accountability in the democracy we want to build? Or, is organizational structure of secondary importance, with the success of a party’s outreach strategies entirely dependent on economic and political realities that cannot be manipulated by politicians? One obvious factor here is a country’s level of economic development. It has been invariably proven to constitute a powerful predictor of “clientelism.”
A second factor is democratic experience. It takes time and practice in party competition to make our politicians, partisan labels, and policy standpoints familiar and credible to the public. In a young democracy such as Armenia, the voters face exceptional uncertainty about the programmatic claims of competing political groups.
When voters demand concrete results, politicians often oblige with a vague “accounting” of the accomplishments—services they have provided—to their constituents. They cite selective and targeted efforts that can easily be observed instead of good public service and policies with long-term benefits that accrue to improve the well-being of the entire population. Of course, pre-independence infrastructures that still persist have been hindering our progress, too.
How do the ARF’s political leaders in Armenia decide which relationship-building approaches will be the best, given their limited resources?
How will expansion of the party’s informal footprint alter its optimal allocation of resources to counter the “clientelist” approach to politics? This modality refers to the ability for a political party, in this case the ARF in Armenia, to delegate responsibilities to non-affiliated entities and leveraging their pre-established relationships within the social and/or geographic constituencies.
For a variety of reasons, the activists and staff who populate the formal organizational structures of the ARF in Armenia often lack this direct connection. Thus, the opportunity to rely on informal social structures to deter “clientelistic” politics is missed.
Another distinct mechanism, which may burden the formal organization vis-à-vis the informal organization, has to do with the views held by party members. Formal party members, who have not stumbled on the party but have made an explicit choice to join might feel a sense of entitlement that manifests itself in a variety of ways, among them a desire to control the fate of the organization.
For one thing, at least some party members may demand transparency and say over the party’s resource flow. For another, in addition to selective material and social incentives, at least some party members will advocate “useful” incentives that involve programmatic, if not ideological aspirations, and altruistic objectives, such as promoting a genuine commitment to social progress and community service by providing collective goods. And here I come to the question of accountability.
In choosing between formal and informal organizational strategy we have to remember that there are certain consequences of informal organization that impact democratic accountability, and particularly, programmatic accountability. If the party chooses a primarily informal organization strategy for reaching out, it creates a situation where the party places few limits on the national party leaders’ perceived needs to make rapid policy shifts, as there is no formal organizational cadre that can confront them, let alone one that might harbor programmatic policy demands.
Without formal organizational structures, the ideologically-minded citizens of Armenia will have no outlet for their aspirations. Let us not forget that the ARF has been a platform, a forum, for the expression and cultivation of such preferences. Simultaneously, by ignoring the formal organization, or simply not maintaining formal branch offices and auxiliary groups, the ARF has created a symbolic void which complicates the choice of programmatic objectives, and their association with particular party organizations.
Because of these gaps—the ideological activists and clear symbolic presence necessary for disseminating programmatic stances at the local level—the ARF will be unable to reinforce its messages.
Returning to my previous article’s responses, what I find sad and what’s often missing from these conversations are the essential foundations that make effective accountability possible. We all know that most of us will react negatively to bad news. We will either become defensive, protesting that we have been misunderstood and unfairly judged, or dismissive, discounting both the credibility of the information and the integrity of the messenger.
Yet effective accountability occurs when we really listen and react affirmatively to tough realities. Effective accountability happens when we take criticism of deficiencies in our performance or moral lapses to heart, and become fully committed to the hard work and difficult changes required to make things better.
With accountability also comes trust. Something the ARF is in great need of.
Trust is a marvelous resource because it grows with use. But in order to trust someone, we must have confidence in their integrity, benevolence, and abilities. Integrity is our perception that the ARF as a party acts consistently on a set of moral principles that we endorse and value. To trust the party, we must see it as an entity that strives to live with virtue and honor. Benevolence exists when we believe that the party is deeply motivated by a desire to help us rather than by selfish interests to benefit itself.
Why should Armenians in Los Angeles, New York, Stockholm or Beirut be discussing the ARF’s activities in Armenia? Because the ARF is one entity—it has been since 1890. The ARF’s performance in Armenia directly impacts the ARF organization worldwide.