26 հոկտեմբեր, 2015 15:37

What Armenia Really Needs is Power Alternation

What Armenia really needs is free media, free and fair elections and, last but not least, power alteration, says Fernando Casal Bértoa from the University of Nottingham. What Armenia really needs is free media, free and fair elections and, last but not least, power alternation, says Fernando Casal Bértoa from the University of Nottingham.

Since 1848, only two European countries -- Armenia and Moldova -- have switched from direct to indirect elections of the head of state.This according to Fernando Casal Bértoa, a Nottingham Research Fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations in the University of Nottingham (United Kingdom). Casal Bértoa says that what Armenia really needs is free media, free and fair elections and last but not least, power alteration and not necessarily constitutional reform. CivilNet reached out to Mr. Casal Bértoa to talk about the upcoming constitutional changes in Armenia. The interview was facilitated by the Apella Institute of Policy Analysis and Dialogue.  

You have researched Armenia's political system. Have you followed the recent constitutional drafting and what is your impression of the proposed reforms?

Yes, certainly. I find the Armenian process of constitutional reform extremely interesting, as it will be the second European country to change from semi-presidentialism to parliamentarism. In fact, in the history of European democracies since 1848 the only other country to do so was Moldova in the year 2000. All the other cases of type of regime change went from indirect to direct elections of the head of state (e.g. Czech Republic and Turkey, more recently).

In my view, and taking into consideration the historical evolution of the presidential office in Armenia from a position with extensive powers after 1995 to more limited powers from 2005, it is just another step in the direction of the institutional design adopted by most consolidated democracies in Western and Southern Europe – with the exception of France, of course.

You have been a strong proponent of a parliamentary system for countries in transition to democracy. Do you think a parliamentary form of government can better promote Armenia's democratic development?

Well, the truth is that, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the adoption of semi-presidentialism by most new democratic states in post-communist Europe (Hungary, Latvia, Estonia, Albania and Kosovo are the only exceptions), the debate among academics about the ideal type of regime conducive to democratic consolidation has been endless. Still, no agreement has been reached and one can find almost as many proponents of parliamentarism as of semi-presidentialism. What is clear, though, and as Robert Elgie has recently demonstrated, in countries where the head of state is both directly elected and very powerful (like in Armenia until 2005), democracy is clearly in peril.

I totally agree with this. If not simply have a look at how democracy collapsed in countries like Russia or Belarus, and the problems Ukrainians have had to safeguard their “defective” democracy. Not to talk about other more “hybrid” regimes like the post-Soviet “Stans” in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc.). What I argue is that, independently of the powers of the presidential office, direct presidential elections, especially those with two-rounds – like in Armenia, may de-stabilize a country’s party system by alterning the way in which political parties interact with each other, with the consequences this may have for the functioning of democracy. One clear example of this is Poland where a populist-right coalition formed after the two main anti-establishment parties (Self-Defence and the League of Polish Families) supported Law and Justice’s presidential candidate (the late Lech Kaczyński) during the second round of the presidential race. Such an “unnatural” coalition not only ended with a 15-years long confrontation between post-Communist (i.e. former Communists) and post-Solidarity (i.e. former opposition) parties, but also increase the level of instability at the electoral, but also at the governmental (6 cabinets in less than 2 years) level. This is not to say that democracies with directly elected presidents will have inchoate party systems, with the negative effects the latter may have for the consolidation and/or quality of democracy.

In the history of European democracies, apart from Moldova and now Armenia, the type of regime change went from indirect to direct elections of the head of state.
What I maintain is that, contrary to parliamentary regimes where the head of state is either hereditary or, if elected, is appointed by the super-majority of the governing parties or by a compromise between the government and the opposition, semi-presidentialism creates a window of opportunity for party system instability that is not possible in parliamentary regimes. This is not to say that parliamentary democracies cannot collapse (e.g. inter-war Greece, Poland, Estonia, etc.), but at least they have one problem less to worry about.

Armenia's Presidential Commission for Constitutional Reforms has proposed the main terms of a future electoral system that are vividly reminiscent of the recent Italian model -- Italicum. If Italicum was to be transplanted to Armenian soil, what would be the implications of such a move for the country?

As far as I have read, the final characteristics of the electoral system are still not clear. Indeed, and contrary to previous versions of the constitutional reform, the one passed by parliament in October 5th transferred all the details to the – still to be modified - electoral code. Moreover, the run-off vote characteristic of the so-called Italicum may not take place as in clear contrast to the draft presented in July the run-off vote has totally lost its mandatory character.

In any case, and taking the soon-to-be-implemented new Italian electoral system as the point of departure, I think that the new electoral system will not bring many changes to already concentrated party system. Indeed, the majority bonus will continue to favor governability at the expenses of representation as the possible 3 percent electoral threshold is still too high to allow the access of small parties into parliament. In fact, if one looks at all legislative elections since 1999 when the current electoral system was adopted, only six out of thirty four extra-parliamentary parties (i.e. Dignified Future in 1999; Liberal Democratic Union and Mighty Fatherland in 2003; United Labour Party, National Unity and New Times in 2007, but none in 2012) got more than 3 per cent of the votes.

However, and taking into consideration the main features of Armenia’s political landscape mentioned above, that the new majority bonus and second-round voting may promote is the creation of a two-bloc party system, something which is already visible nowadays if we look at the polarization created between those opposed to President Sargsyan and “his” constitutional reform and those in favour.

What Armenia really needs is free media, free and fair elections and power alternation.
What should be an optimal party system for a hybrid regime like Armenia? The reform is intended at creating a Westminster-type two-party system with no strong consensual institutions and power-sharing arrangements. Those of who have drafted the reforms say that their intention is to sustain and ensure stable governance. Is stability, in this case, sacrificing democratic institutions, power-sharing, etc.?

Well, one important thing to keep in mind here is that stability, governance and representation are not necessarily at odds. If not let’s ask to those living in so-called consensual democracies like The Netherlands, Switzerland, etc. But for that what is needed is will for consensus that the current Armenian political elite does not seem to have. If not just see the tone of the political discussions and the almost unilateral character of the constitutional reform being proposed.

Moreover, if the intention is to create a “two-party system with no strong consensual institutions and power-sharing arrangements” and foster stable governance, then the reform is certainly not needed as this is what the country has had at least since the last constitutional reform in 2005.

In my view, and after more than twenty years of an hegemonic party system, what Armenia really needs is above all, and not necessarily in this order (but possibly): (1) free media, (2) free and fair elections and, last but not least, (3) power alternation. In fact, it is only after the latter takes place that one could start to think that in Armenia democracy is becoming “the only game in town.”

The opponents of the reforms often argue that these reforms may result in an effectively one-party system, in erosion of accountability and checks and balances and in endless reproduction of the incumbent elites. Do you think that these arguments are reasonable?

I would answer with another question: isn’t this what has been going on in the country for the last two decades? Having said that, what I think is that the timing of the constitutional reform is certainly suspicious. If President Sargsyan would have sincerely wanted to increase Armenia’s chances to become a consolidated democracy, he would have proposed these changes just before his second presidential bid in 2013 and not now that he is constitutionally impeded to have a third mandate. In my opinion, this is certainly a more sophisticated and elegant way to try to maintain his grid onto power like the constitutional reforms sponsored by some Latin American Presidents (e.g. Chávez, Correa, Morales, etc.).

If President Sargsyan would have sincerely wanted to increase Armenia’s chances to become a consolidated democracy, he would have proposed constitutional changes just before his second presidential bid in 2013.
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Fernando Casal Bértoa is a Nottingham Research Fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations in the University of Nottingham (United Kingdom). He is also Co-chair of the Council for European Studies’ Research Network on “Political Parties, Party Systems and Elections”, Research-theme director at the Nottingham Interdisciplinary Centre for Economic and Political Research (NICEP), and Co-director of the ECPR Summer School on Political Parties. His work has been published in Sociological Methods and Research, Party Politics, Democratization, Government and Opposition, International Political Science Review, South European Society and Politics, and East European Politics. His most recent book, co-edited with Ferdinand Müller-Rommel, is Party Politics and Democracy in Europe (Routledge).

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