Polling place, election observer. I am doing my part to help diagnose the illness that has been plaguing elections in Yerevan since independence over 20 years ago. Even if there is little democracy to safeguard, it still must have its ailing homunculus at the polling place. So I go there, for 16 hours of inspection and auscultation. Democracy, as they say, is hard work. Especially when the polling place is run by a seething dominatrix–Gohar.
My first election official: a sharply wizened 40-something man stares hard at my presspass which was just recently assembled by Transparency International. His eyes have nictating membranes; his voice is rat-speak on diesel; his shoes are clearly for denting shins. But maybe I’m being defensive.
Two hours: one of the in-numerable proud white-haired ladies is shouting back at Gohar, who has repeatedly lied to us with her bold, made-up face, and her shock of in-your-face bleached hair. Gohar pivots on her red, 4 inch heels and smacks the air with disgust: nose wrinkled, upper lip retracted, eyes partly closed. I wouldn’t want to tangle with her; but I wish I had been a bit less amachel (means both shy and ashamed). Now she is walking out of the polling place with the voter list. My fellow observer nabs her, and receives a tongue-lashing, but Gohar brings back the list.
I ask to test the ink that they use to stamp the voters’ ID. After 3 hours, the stamp on my paper has disappeared. Look, the ink has disappeared. “You want ink? I’ll show you ink!” says her body, as she stamps my paper again with a juicy glob of blue-black ink. I stand down, the ink fading in my hands. As Gohar continually breaks the rules, denies, scolds, I remember Paul Eckman’s principle of lie detection: lying people often use anger to cover their lie, so that their anger becomes a “tell.” But now I see that this anger isn’t just a mask; it also effectively interferes with the moral decision-making of the person being lied to. Again and again, wishing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my fellow observer, I stand frozen by this woman’s rage. I wish I wasn’t so amachel.
When I was 8, my maternal grandfather, a shy, self-sanctified man, paid me the elevating sum of $5 to memorize a passage from Matthew, in the Bible. Pediatricians–at least the ones who have overcome their raw, behavioristic tendencies–know that bribery is a dubious, time-honored method of proselytizing, that dis-empowers the payee even as it “improves” him. But I still remember two cents-worth: “Even the hairs of your head are numbered.” Who the hell is gonna count ’em?, I thought. But today, as I start to love these people, I’m patient, I’m counting. I want to get the same tally as God.
Of the 854 folks who come through, folks Grandpa’s age are far over-represented; and they have additional voter recruits with them–disabled family members who look like they haven’t been outside for months. Following the 2008 parliamentary elections, there was such an infusion of bribe currency from oligarchs to poor voters that the value of the Armenian dram decreased by 4%. I suspect the rising price of a vote since then, from $10 to $40, improves the prognosis for democracy. Final count, 11:15PM: oligarch landslide. Observers’ consensus: the oligarchs paid these folks a bit more than $5.
After a day of teasing and pretend affection (“Peter-jan, you are my friend”), Garo (another bullying election official) and I come to a new understanding. “You are a doctor? what kind? I am sick” he says in his default, court jester way, his arms criss-crossing his chest. “Niartaban“–neurologist. “It’s my heart!”–again in caricature. “I can’t help you,” I tell him, “but I’ll pray for your heart.”
Oud piece: Down for the Count