28 December, 2018 12:53

Armenia’s Snap Elections: Building a Ship at Sea

By Armen Mazmanyan (Central European University and American University of Armenia)

The article was published on whogoverns.eu

Background

On 9 December 2018 the citizens of the Republic of Armenia went to the polls to elect the country’s new parliament, and these were the second such elections in the last two years. The outgoing parliament, featuring an overwhelming majority by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), was elected in April 2017, in a contest marred by allegations of widespread abuse of public resource and vote-buying. These allegations were in most part assessed by international observers to be credible. Before then, the RPA won all national elections in the country since 2003, maintaining a quasi-monopoly in both national and local politics. Serzh Sargsyan, RPA’s leader, was elected as president in 2008 and 2013, and despite his promise not to run for presidency any more, nor to seek a chief executive position if the country’s constitution is changed from semi-presidential to parliamentary, the loyal parliament elected him to become Prime Minister after the end of his second and last presidential term in March 2018.

RPA’s continuing hold on power and Sargsyan’s deceitful power-thrust, coupled with years of corrupt governance and economic and political stagnation, caused an outburst of massive public protests which wiped the Republican government in a matter of weeks in April and May 2018. Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan resigned amid the unrest. Following a tormenting public demand, on 8 May his parliamentary majority elected the protest leader, Nikol Pashinyan, as Prime Minister. Having an almost absolute executive power granted by the constitution that was meant to serve Serzh Sargsyan, Pashinyan dismantled the Republican government, replacing the entire power machine with his trustees, and launched an intensive anti-corruption campaign targeting former political elite.

Despite surviving formal majority in the parliament, in the face of irresistible public support of Pashinyan and disgraced by several corruption-related revelations, RPA’s massive parliamentary faction could pass no act saving it from a surrender, and in late October, following Prime Minister Pashinian’s symbolic resignation, it could elect no new head of the executive, giving a green light to snap elections. On 1 November, President Armen Sarkissian (not related to former president and RPA leader Serzh Sargsyan) called for early parliamentary elections.

Contestants and Campaign

By the late Fall 2018, the unrest and protest of the Spring and the resulting non-violent change of power (now commonly referred as Velvet Revolution) had strongly reshuffled the political landscape.

Of 9 political parties and 2 alliances running in the snap elections, only four were established political players with a relatively long political tenure (RPA, Prosperous Armenia- PA, Rule of Law Party, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnakcutyun- ARF). Three others, including Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance (created on the basis of his Civic Contract Party), Bright Armenia, and the We Alliance, could be considered as belonging to the younger generation of political contestants even if each of them had a prior electoral record. Four other parties then were complete newcomers (Citizens Choice- Social Democratic Party, Party of Christian Democratic Rebirth, National Progress, and the Sasna Tsrer), some of them registered only days before the start of the campaign. At least two well-established parties, traditionally considered among most likely opposition contenders, the Armenian National Congress and Heritage, chose not to run.

From the beginning of the campaign, Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance was seen as the outright frontrunner and the likeliest winner as it kept enjoying the fruits of strongest public affection with the revolution that it led. Preceding the national contest, snap elections in capital Yerevan’s municipal council, held in September, resulted in My Step’s devastating win (about 80% of votes cast). The other contestants explicitly acknowledged the frontrunner’s substantial advantage in the parliamentary race, competing for the minority of the votes that will not be delivered in favor of Pashinyan’s team. For PA, an ideology-lacking political entity founded and led by a wealthy oligarch, which always came second in all elections since 2007, this was rather an effort to preserve its status as the second best, though this spot was now claimed by Bright Armenia. The latter is a liberal party founded shortly before the 2017 elections, then entering the parliament on the same ticket with Pashinyan’s Civic Contract. The two parties then formed an opposition alliance called Way Out; the Way Out Alliance also included the Republic Party (not to be confused with the Republican Party-RPA), now running as part of the We Alliance. In 2017, the Way Out Alliance received 7.7% of the votes cast, obtaining 9 seats in the legislature.

For all other parties than those mentioned above, the target for the race was probably nothing more ambitious than to overcome the 5% threshold, including the demoralized and dismembered RPA and Armenia’s oldest party, ARF. All of these contestants’ campaigned to attract the votes of those insignificant segments of the population who were not convinced with Pashinyan’s ambitious and often populist agenda. All of them claimed to become the only genuine opposition to the vast power to be enjoyed by Pashinyan.

While the new government strongly denounced use of administrative resource, and indeed took effective steps in preventing fusion of party and government for the former’s benefit, Pashinyan’s main advantage in the campaign, and probably the main campaign tool itself, was his government’s breakthrough reformation of the image of public authority, as well as its particularly austere offensive on corrupt practices of the past governments. These ongoing government zeal, proceeding through the campaign period, was able to keep the public affection with the new power-holders even despite their largely over-optimistic rhetoric and the lack of a well-thought and elaborated governance strategy. My Step’s campaign meanwhile included other activities that kept the revolution spirit at top, primarily massive rallies through the capital city and meetings and demonstrations elsewhere.

Among the key campaign topics, the debate between the old and the new was at the forefront. The campaign environment was dominated, and contaminated, by the debate between RPA and My Step, often heated and intolerant. RPA’s campaign focused on the criticism of Pashinyan’s government based on its multiple blunders in domestic and foreign policies during the last 6 months, as well as its lack of professionalism and experience in public administration. Despite certain weakness in argument and experience vis-à-vis politically-skillful Republican veterans, Pashinyan’s team consistently turned the debate to its popular advantage by an emphasis on RPA’s long-lasting unpopular governance that was especially distinguished with severe corruption, cynicism towards equal treatment and justice, economic troubles and massive outflow of population from Armenia.

Three days before the elections, the leaders of all contesting parties participated in a TV debate aired by the public broadcaster. This was the first ever pre-election debate Armenia where all party leaders showed up. By then, it was an unhappy tradition for especially the incumbent leaders to avoid public debates. Most popular campaign topics included the ongoing fight against corruption, including the controversial detention of the former president Robert Kocharyan only days before the elections, perspectives of applying measures of transitional justice to cope with the crimes of the past, economic reforms and poverty reduction, and most prominently, perhaps, the status of Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia’s foreign policy with respect to Russia and the Russian-led military, as well as economic alliances (the Collective Security Treaty Organization- CSTO, and the Eurasian Economic Union- EEU).

The Electoral System

The elections were held under a complex electoral system based on proportional system with national, as well as open regional party lists. If a party fail to obtain a stable majority in the parliament (54% of the seats), second round of election would be held between the two frontrunner parties, a rare Italian-style parliament stability safeguard that highly adds to electoral complexity and the general public distrust towards the system. There is a 5% and a 7% entry thresholds for parties and alliances respectively. If any single party obtains more than 2/3 of the mandates in the legislature, the minority parties are receiving as many mandates as necessary for them to maintain a 1/3 of all seats.

The quasi-majoritarian regional party lists component of the system has been under constant attack by most of opposition parties, as well as the experts, observers and non-government entities, as it allowed for mobilization of patronage and clientalist networks by corrupt local strongmen recruited by the party of power in respective constituencies. A month before the elections, Pashinyan’s government proposed a change in the election law allowing for transition to a simple proportional electoral system, as well as lowering the entry threshold for parties, and alliances. Despite the extremely short notice for making such significant amendments, the changes were welcomed by most domestic political players, and by international organizations, including- albeit implicitly- the Venice Commission. These changes, however, were voted down by the outgoing parliament as the government failed to rich a political accord on the changes with RPA’s parliamentary faction.

Voting and Results

About 48.6% of all eligible voters took part in 9 December snap elections. The substantially lower turnout- in 2012 some 62% and in 2017 60-% of the voters showed up- can be explained by the significant certainty about the outcome of the elections, not least due to the recent elections in Yerevan municipality. In all previous elections, meanwhile, the higher turnout might well be due to significant mobilization and often intimidation of certain categories of voters by the authorities, particularly of public servants and employees of state-controlled enterprises.

According to the preliminary results published by Armenia’s Central Electoral Commission on 10 December 2018, Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance received 70.4% of valid votes cast. PA and Bright Armenia were the only other parties which entered the parliament, with 8.2% and 6.3% of votes respectively. Due to the minority protection clauses of the electoral law, PA and Bright Armenia receive additional seats to make up the third of the parliament in aggregate. Ultimately, My Step Alliance will most likely hold 88, PA 26, and Bright Armenia 18 mandates. RPA obtained 4.7% of votes and ARF 3.9%. The two parties fail to obtain seats in the parliament first time since Armenia’s independence.

The observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded on 10 December that the elections “were held with respect to fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust” and that the voters had a genuine choice. During the 10 December press-conference, the international observers summarized that these elections were unprecedented in Armenia in terms of meeting international standards for electoral integrity.

Effects and implications

With such configuration, the parliament is feared to have no principled opposition. Prior to the election, both the PA, and Bright Armenia had stated their support of Pashinyan’s government. While the two nominal opposition parties may join to veto any acts requiring a 2/3 majority of the votes, particularly certain constitutional amendments, constitutional (or organic) laws, including the election law, as well as election of certain higher positions (of the general prosecutor or constitutional judges), the parliament is unlikely to implement any significant check on Pashinyan’s government.

The political arrangement entails a dominant-party system. Although a coalition government may well be established- it has been an “old” tradition in Armenia’s political practice to invite minority parties to become part of the governing coalition even if the majority party does not need their support- any configuration with a coalitional arrangement would be largely formal. A more intriguing question now is whether Pashinyan will choose to nominate his party colleagues and street protest partners to higher government positions, as he did following the fall of Republican government in May, or he will opt for a government of national unity as he promised at the high days of the unrest. For many, this policy will predetermine his government’s success in the midst of turbulent politics, both domestic and external. Pashinya’s inner team is seen by many as too young and unexperienced, whereas the country needs a strong decision-making to cope with the turbulences of post-revolution economy and a sensitive geopolitical location.

One way or the other, the development path of the country is now entrusted solely to a weakly institutionalized political party with a clearly defined charismatic leader who has promised, and is apparently determined, to proceed with sweeping reforms. Where the political configuration unchains the incumbent from any considerable restraints on his way to doing this, it also relieves him from any restraints should he choose to convert the absolute public support into a dictatorship. Ultimately, as good intentions rather than entrenched rules of the game will be the guiding force for the country at least for the time being, party system building, and building of a constitutional democracy, is well to start from a scratch, and the job is indeed to be done while at sea.