War and Peace: Armenian Elections 2017

Komiker Narek Margaryan verkleidet als Batman

On April 2, 2017 Parliamentary elections took place in Armenia. These were the first national elections after the Constitutional Referendum of 2015 which transformed the country from a Presidential into a Parliamentary Republic. An analysis.

The elections took place in a fairly challenging local and regional political climate.

In 2016 the Economist Intelligent Unit changed Armenia’s ranking from semi-authoritarian to an authoritarian state in its global Democracy Index[1]. The exercise of free and fair elections might have been a promising step towards Democracy; however there is not much at stake in these elections, with a very limited diversity of political manifestos offered by the contesting parties and political blocs.

The EU allocated seven million Euros for the election, of which four million was spent on voter identification technologies and two million Euros was passed to the government to install video cameras to provide live streams from polling stations. The rest of the funds were used by civil society programs, including election observation initiatives.

The head of the EU delegation to Armenia, Ambassador Piotr Świtalski, in an Interview[2] with CIVILNET, mentioned that Europe has a strong interest in taking qualitative steps towards democratic development in Armenia. He also pointed out that, for Armenia, good elections mean new opportunities for cooperation with Europe, including the newly negotiated Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement which is yet to be finalized. Commenting on the election outcome, the Ambassador stressed that the EU was satisfied with the process and that Brussels is determined to continue to pursue its programmatic agenda. However the elections for the City Council of Yerevan, scheduled for May 15, will be an important test as to whether or not the lessons of national elections have really been learnt.

The OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission landed in Armenia with 14 experts, 28 long-term monitors and 250 short term observers. The mission’s post-election preliminarily statement states that “the April 2 parliamentary elections were well-administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected. Despite welcomed reforms of the legal framework and the introduction of new technologies to reduce incidents of electoral irregularities, the elections were tainted by credible information about vote-buying, and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies. This contributed to an overall lack of public confidence and trust in the elections. Election day was generally calm and peaceful but marked by organizational problems and undue interference in the process, mostly by party representatives”[3].

Three key local monitoring groups, Independent Observers’ Alliance, Citizen Observers’ Group and Armenian Helsinki Committee Group, deployed a total of 3500 local observers to cover around 80 percent of polling stations on Election Day. According to the Independent Observer’s Alliance (IOA), the election campaign was accompanied by violence and pressure, including the use of firearms, mostly against the candidates and supporters of the non-ruling and opposition parties and blocs. The IOA also concluded that the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) carried out organized and widespread abuse of administrative resources and that the CEC (Central Election Commission) did not carry out a thorough and comprehensive examination of the issues raised in the petitions addressed to it.[4] Based on observation reports, the Citizen’s Observers Group recorded supervised, controlled and open voting as well as pressure on the expression of voters’ free will, including bribery, low quality of work among precinct election commissions, violations and obvious malfunctions of technical tools, noticeable passivity of police at precincts and the operation of fake observer missions[5].

The Formation of the New Parliament

The above-mentioned 2015 referendum, and later the new Election Code, specified the type and the functions of the Parliament bringing forward amendments in a huge number of laws.  The new Parliament will have 105 seats and a two-tier party list proportional representation method. This means that each party or bloc’s representation is composed of 50 percent from their party list and 50 percent from the regional lists. Basically it is a mixed system of proportional and majoritarian.

Majoritarian is collected by 13 electoral districts that Armenia is divided and the rest on national party list. However unlike the classic majoritarian list the regional candidates have to be associated with a party. Two parties and two blocs made it into the new Parliament. The ruling RPA received  58 out of 105 seats in the newly formed National Assembly, after winning 49.12 percent of the vote, while the “Tsarukyan” bloc will be represented with 31 seats. The “Yelk” (Exit) bloc has 9 seats, while the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -Dashnaksutyun (ARF) will have 7 seats. The RPA achieved a simple majority and there are political rumors that it might form a coalition government with the ARF.[6] The Tsarukyan Bloc describes itself as opposition to the ruling conservative RPA, however it remains to be seen how accurate that self-assessment is, since the bloc’s experience to date proves the opposite. The “Yelk” (Exit) bloc is generally perceived as being in opposition to the RPA according to public opinion[7].

It is expected that female MPs will make up 15 percent of the newly formed Parliament which represents scant progress in comparison with the previous Parliament. The RPA, Tsarukyan bloc, ARF and Congress-Armenian People’s party bloc (ANC) had national minority representatives in their candidate list. As a result, four representatives from national minorities joined the new Parliament. Three MPs are representing the Republican Party (Yazidi, Kurdish and Assyrian ethnic minority representatives) and one MP from Tsarukyan bloc represents the Russian minority. According to Boris Murazi, head of the Sinjar National Yazidi Union NGO,“ it only seems on the surface that the Election Code provides the opportunity for ethnic minorities to run in Parliamentary elections. The national minority representatives are not directly elected by their communities and their chances of winning depend solely on the popularity of the party list where the national minority representative was nominated to run”[8].

Contestants and Key messages

The election outcome did not offer any changes from the current situation over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Russia-EU dilemma, relations with Turkey and military issues. Parties mostly re-affirmed their long-standing idle positions using the popular future tense as to how things can be improved, whilst effectively avoiding looking critically at the failed policies of the past.

The ruling conservative RPA’s campaign was the most astonishing in terms of the volume of criticism towards existing problems. The Party spoke often about economic advancement, the elimination of corruption and economic monopolies and the eradication of poverty, while the election campaign should have been more of a reporting platform for the party in power for the last decade. This scenario does not leave much hope for the next five years with the same party in power if it will continue to privilege words over actions, adding to existing frustrations with Armenia’s no-peace-no-war situation on both the domestic and foreign front.

The issues of poverty, inequality, injustice, corruption and human rights were effectively neglected or undermined by nearly all contesting parties. On the economic front, the proposals outlined in speeches, texts and debates were beyond the realm of possibility according to some economists, and seemed out of touch with reality. As expected, the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, issues surrounded the Armed Forces and Armenia’s regional and foreign policy were quite dominant during the campaign. This shows clearly that the campaign content vector was not orientated towards the needs of the people of Armenia, but rather towards the international community both inside and outside of Armenia.  This tactic helped the contesting parties to be disengaged with local debates, as it would have been challenging for them to survive the public reaction. Instead, they found it easier to talk about policy areas in which the general population has no decision-making role and in which they are less informed.

In terms of the “War and Peace” debate over regional engagement, and specifically over the NK conflict and relations with Turkey, the key highlight of this election, dramatically different from the rest of the electoral programs, came from the Congress – Armenian People’s party bloc. They called for reconciliation and friendship with neighboring countries, claiming that this would ultimately bring peace and prosperity to the region. This quite brave and progressive approach was highly criticized, not only in nationalistic circles which make the absolutely majority in the country, but also, surprisingly, in liberal circles. There was no willingness among the contesting parties to openly go into debate over peace and the pre-election debates were dominated by discussions of personal attributes over the delivery of policy goals to the population.

The Congress – Armenian People’s party bloc received less than 2 percent of the votes, perhaps due to its peace-making agenda, but also most probably because it has been steadily losing credibility over the past few years. It remains to be seen whether the Congress will remain committed to this highly essential policies outside of the Parliament. The “Yelk” bloc and ARF, which both made it into Parliament, will be advocating for no compromise on NK. The Tsarukyan bloc is promoting the concept of a peaceful solution the NK problem, however has not suggested any specific delivery mechanism for this. The Armenian Republican party, now the majority in Parliament headed by incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan, has confirmed its commitment to the ongoing peace process overseen by the OSCE’s Minsk Group. 

In terms of the wider context of neighborly relations, specifically relations with Georgia and Iran, there was no debate and scant reference made during the pre-election period. The vast majority of the contesting parties were not engaging critically, either on the Kremlin or on Brussels, but spoke mostly of balancing the influence of the two sides. The Free Democrats liberal party, which didn’t make it into Parliament, was the only contestant with an explicit foreign policy vector oriented towards Europe, calling for a closer approximation with the European Union and an immediate departure from the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. On the opposite side, the second biggest electoral bloc, the Tsarukyan bloc, can be expected to be quite sympathetic towards Kremlin policies and is calling for even closer ties with Russia.

The Electoral Behavior

According to a recent survey[9] conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Armenia office, 67 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 replied that they didn’t think their vote will have any significance. 65 percent of urban respondents and 49 percent of rural respondents replied that they wouldn’t be taking part in the elections or that they wouldn’t be voting for any of the candidates. There was also a correlation found between the response and the level of education of the respondent: the higher the level of education, the lower the motivation to participate in the elections. 

In December 2016, a citizen initiative was formed by a local comedian, Sergey Danielyan, calling for people to get together and register a political party called “Active Civil Step” (the abbreviation of which spells the word “shit” in Armenian). The reason behind this was explained by the initiators, that “against the background of generalized apathy towards the elections, which are always unfree and unfair, ”Shit” would be the only real party that should go into Parliament, and the party’s pre-election campaign and post-election activity will be in harmony, unlike the rest of the parties contesting the elections, which usually abandon people after the elections”. The call for such a satirical party went viral and within two weeks the group received thousands of applications for party membership and around 11,000 members joined its Facebook group.

The public in general has a very low level of trust and confidence in the elections and in the Government in general, and consequently there is a widespread apathy all over the country. People do not see elections as a way of achieving change in Armenia. The small-scale debate by a very small number of actors from civil society argued that, hypothetically, even if elections were free and fair, none of the parties or blocs would be able to improve the quality of people’s lives, since none of them are addressing the real challenges of poverty, inequality and injustice. The election is a contest taking place in a closed circle, far removed from the lives of citizens. Various small and marginal groups called for a boycott of the election, however this idea failed to gain popularity. Perhaps this discourse will be one of the rare instances in the country where people believe themselves to be the only masters of their country, holding fast to the idea that the political environment needs to be shaped by the priorities of its citizens.

Technology and content: quo vadis?

Elections are always a powerful two-level mechanism which turns votes into seats and seats into actions. Electoral dynamics in Armenia to date have not been promising, not only because there were violations in election administration processes, but also because the electoral debates were too detached from the concerns of the people. The use of modern technologies at these latest elections, including live cameras on polling stations, posting of a signed voters’ list for online scrutiny after the elections, and the quick ID verification of voters, were attractive investments in the democratic process. However, these technological interventions were not able to improve the level of public trust towards the elections themselves. Moreover, the lack of needs-based debates and content still remain the biggest downsides to Armenia’s electoral environment.

There is potential in Armenia for the promotion and “provocation” of such content and communication from people to parties through an active citizenry talking about injustice, inequality, violence, war and corruption, among other issues. This kind of political environment, informed by a citizen-led agenda, will frame party programs and only then will elections be able to address the real challenges in the country. Until then, however, war on all fronts will prevail.