By Edmond Y. Azadian
The much-anticipated parliamentary elections in Armenia were carried out on April 2 without significant deviations from the anticipated results. This was the first election since Armenia adopted of a new constitution propelling the country from a presidential to a parliamentary system. One other change resulting from this switch is that the size of the legislature has been cut down from 131 to 105 members.
The election results impacted the country on two main dimensions: domestic and regional/ geostrategic.
Armenia is located at the political nerve center of the Caucasus region. Many countries are interested in its policies, if not its wellbeing. That is why the election process was observed dutifully by the West and Russia, with both camps projecting their conflicting interests in the region.
While Armenia is being considered within the Russian orbit, Western observations of those elections would be a priori negative.
One of the Western news outlets characterized the election results as a victory for the pro-Russian president. That image was reinforced by the early congratulations from President Vladimir Putin, who stated in his message: “The election results confirm the highest level of confidence which you and your party enjoy among the citizens of Armenia.” That certainly did not reflect the general sentiment, necessarily.
A total of 1.58 million eligible voters cast their ballots, which amounts to 61 percent of the electorate.
Hrayr Thomasian, the head of the Central Election Commission, after votes were counted from 1,886 electoral precincts, announced 58 seats will be going to the ruling Republican Party. According to him, the election results presented the following picture: 49.12 percent Republican Party; 27.32 percent Tsarukyan Alliance, 31 seats; 7.77 percent Yelk (Exit), 9 seats; 6.57 percent ARF (Dashnag) Party, 7 seats.
Any party participating in the election had to cross the 5-percent threshold to be represented in the parliament. That percentage for alliances was raised up to 7 percent. Consequently, the following parties have been pushed out of the race: Armenian Renaissance with 3.72 percent; ORO (Ohanyan/Raffi Hovannissian/Oskanian) 2.08 percent; Armenian Congress-Armenian Popular Party Alliance (President Levon Ter-Petrosian-Aram Sargsyan) 1.62 percent; Free Democrats .93 percent and the Armenian Communist Party .74 percent.
There were 300 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) across Armenia. Among them were representatives from the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assemblies of the Council of Europe (PACE).
Predictably they were critical of the electoral process.
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, is not judged by the same standards. Ilham Aliyev inherited a petro-dynasty from his father and named his wife vice president to perpetuate the family rule, yet he barely received a slap on the wrist from the West; instead, praise is lavished on him, and an image of a country tolerant to minorities and the media is perpetuated, nevermind that Talish and Lesqui minority leaders and a host of journalists are rotting in jails.
In general terms, improvements were marked in Armenia’s election this time around compared to previous times. “It is a pity that despite all of the legal and organizational changes, that the elections did not remove longstanding doubts about the reliability and integrity of the electoral process in the country,” said Liliane Maury Pasquier of PACE. “The election is not just what’s happening at the polling stations on election day,” added Ignacio Sanchez Amor, the mission coordinator representing the OSCE.
The latter hit the nail right on the head. Because it is not in the interest of the authorities to allow any disturbances on election day.
As the European agencies provide electronic equipment to better monitor the election process, cheating and fraud by the interested parties rises to a more sophisticated level. The observers could not provide much documentation of fraud on election day, but they were able to detect vote buying and institutional pressure.
Regional governors (marzpets) are tolerated despite the criminal conduct of many because they are a necessary evil on election day. They have to deliver the votes to the ruling party. Similarly, schools, universities, hospitals and government institutions become election machines to cater to the Republican Party. That is why there is little underhanded action left to be conducted on election day itself.
Besides the foreign observers, some criticism was expressed on the domestic front. Levon Zurabian, a leader of the Congress-HShK, charged that the Armenian authorities held “yet another disgraceful election.”
Speaking to Azatutyun.am, Zurabian accused the Republican Party of handing out bribes. He also claimed that the government loyalists systematically breached the secrecy of the ballot to make sure that the bribed or intimidated citizens vote for the right people.
To counter all criticism, foreign and domestic, the Republican Party Spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov, declared at a press conference that the vote was “democratic, transparent and competitive.” Citing the election results, he said that the party headed by President Serzh Sargsyan is well placed to again form Armenia’s government. He said that the Republican Party is ready to extend its power-sharing arrangement with the ARF but would not draw on its other coalition partners.
Initially the ARF was trailing below the 6 percent level until it got a last-minute boost from the government election machinery to secure the election of seven members to the parliament.
Sharmazanov’s caution to extend power-sharing to other parties is well understood in light of past experience with the Tsarukyan group. Tsarukyan had formed a coalition with the Republican Party, until he began to veer off the script and into the opposition camp. When the tax authorities began inspecting his businesses, he was shaken and for a while withdrew from politics altogether; once burnt, twice shy. This time around, he is very cautious. Although he commands the second strongest contingent in the parliament, he has only made vague statements about his future plans.
Now the ARF enters into the coalition with the Republicans; it may never become a threat to its partner because of its size. It can only help.
This time around, Tsarukyan will remain under vigilant scrutiny not to veer off course again.
Yelk will remain the most vocal opposition in the parliament, though without too much clout. The alliance, headed by Edmond Maroukyan, Sassoun Grigorian and Nigol Pashinyan, had proved to be the most vociferous critic of the administration. It serves as a safety valve for public discontent. Yelk will be the third largest group in parliament.
ORO, Congress, Free Democrats and the Communist Party have all been wiped out by design. The head of the Armenian Congress, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, contributed enormously to the loss of his coalition by advocating, during the campaign, the return of territories to Azerbaijan to buy peace.
Political analysts Viguen Hakobyan and Aram Safaryan had been wondering what happened to the West-leaning voters during the election. It was estimated that 25 percent of the electorate favored a Western orientation for the country. Hakobyan says those votes were “pulverized.” ORO in particular was perceived as West-leaning, featuring two former foreign ministers. They were eliminated from the political arena. That does not augur well for the complexion of the parliament, from the viewpoint of Western governments.
The Republican Party did not promise much to the citizens, except for some vague slogans. It won the election simply because it controlled the election machine. It is responsible for the past miseries of economic decline, depopulation and defeat in Karabakh. The only hope remains the pledge that Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan brought from Russian Armenian tycoons to invest heavily in Armenia. If that is not an election trick, Armenia can certainly benefit.
The parliamentary elections fared well. The potential for an explosion, however, looms down the road. Should Karapetyan’s popularity continue to rise, he will be on a collision path with Sargsyan, who is looking for a comeback as prime minister after his presidential term ends in 2018.