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On Accountability: The ARF And Its 'Ties That Bind'

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  • On Accountability: The ARF And Its 'Ties That Bind'

    Wednesday, September 11th, 2013


    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

    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

    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-a-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.