More than twenty-five years after gaining independence, Armenia is yet to undergo a democratically instigated change of power. The parliamentary election of 2 April 2017 was no exception in this regard. The ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) was re-elected with a large majority. According to the international NGO Freedom House, Armenia is a ‘semi-consolidated authoritarian regime’. What is striking, however, is the contrast between the country’s comparatively poor performance in the areas of governance and rule of law and the positive achievements of its relatively dynamic and free civil society.
The idea that elections are a central measure of democracy has long been outdated. It can equally no longer be said that Armenia or other post-Soviet states are still in a period of transition. Yet in many respects, the election in early April gives an impression of increased civil society engagement in the country.
After a constitutional referendum was passed in December 2015, paving the way for a change from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary form of governance, this year’s parliamentary election was followed with particular attention both nationally and internationally. President Serzh Sargsyan’s second and last term in office formally ends in 2018. By then, the transition should be complete. Under the new constitution, the office of president is to be politically relegated and limited to symbolic and representative functions. All political power, meanwhile, is to be transferred to the prime minister. Although Sargsyan has so far repeatedly denied it, it is widely assumed that he seeks the post of prime minister in the long term.
What is more, in 2016 a new electoral law was passed. In preparation, Armenia’s international partners had recommended that the country organise a broad-based societal discussion on the change. The drafting of the electoral law therefore took place in the so-called 4+4+4 format, with four representatives each from the government, the opposition, and civil society. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) as well as the Council of Europe’s European Commission for Democracy through Law, known as the Venice Commission, found that a series of earlier recommendations had been implemented. Among other things, an improved voter identification system had been introduced thanks to electronic authentication, which aimed to help prevent multiple voting. In a large number of polling stations, video surveillance cameras had been installed. A further innovation concerned the publication of signed electoral lists after the election. Civil society representatives in particular had lobbied hard for publication of the lists. Yet they were ultimately not prepared to back the law, as they objected to restrictions on civilian observers, whose numbers had increased overall but remained limited in each individual polling station.
The nine parties that competed in the election differed little on substance. They were accused of lacking innovative ideas, not to mention political alternatives. It is characteristic of elections in Armenia that security and the military take on a prominent role. The smouldering conflict with Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and the equally problematic relationship with neighbouring Turkey are traditionally important issues in electoral campaigns. The latter represents again a key topic these days in the context of the April 24 national commemoration of the genocide of Christian Armenians by the Ottomans in 1915. By contrast, the country’s highly contentious social issues, such as education and social welfare, play only a very minor roleYoung people in particular conclude from this state of affairs that there is no real contest.
Also, the Tsarukyan Alliance, a political movement named after government challenger and businessman Gagik Tsarukyan, is generally seen as part of the political elite. Given the very real rivalry between HHK and the Tsarukyan Alliance, many observers were surprised that the HHK ended up achieving a far better result, with 49.2 per cent of the vote, than the second-placed Tsarukyan Alliance (27.4 per cent). The only two other parties that cleared the 5 per cent hurdle necessary to enter parliament were the liberal, pro-European Yelk Alliance (7.8 per cent), represented in parliament for the first time, and the former smaller governing party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), with 6.6 per cent.
As international election observers of the OSCE/ODIHR pointed out both before and after the election, precautions taken were not enough to prevent the ballot from being overshadowed by credible reports of vote buying and voter manipulation. The general organisation of the election as well as the combination of an improved technical setup and an increased number of civil society election observers was rated positively. Yet it was also found that there is still a low overall level of trust in the integrity of the electoral process.
National election observers of the Citizen Observer Initiative (including organisations belonging to the European Platform for Democratic Elections, or EPDE) also criticised the fact that of the more than 28,000 civilian observers accredited by the Central Electoral Commission, only 20 per cent represented recognised independent civil society organisations. The vast majority consisted of either political actors or entirely unknown organisations.
Irregularities that had already attracted attention in previous elections, such as the misuse of state employees, were recorded again in this year’s ballot. Before the vote, representatives of the Armenian NGO ‘Union of Informed Citizens’ revealed that numerous heads of schools and nurseries had generated registers of voters for the HHK. Armenian civil society was outraged that no official investigations into the matter had been carried out and called on the authorities in an open letter to act.
After the election, a broad segment of the Armenian population registered a feeling of resignation and an impression that most Armenians have actually no interest in democratic processes. But there is still a ray of hope for many people, in particular the young, in the capital: the development of a new political force. Admittedly, the young opposition party Yelk (the Way Out Alliance) cannot be expected to contend with the old guard of the HHK. But it is notable that the alliance, which consists of the relatively new parties ‘Civil Contract’ and ‘Bright Armenia’, was able to achieve the third-best election result and secure nine seats in parliament. The group’s members also include former activists from the street protest movements Mashtots Park, Electric Yerevan, and Khorenatsi. In that sense, many people remain confident that the numerous examples of short-lived social protests in Armenia can perhaps one day translate into a more permanent form of political action.
Nadja Douglas is a research associate at ZOiS. In April she conducted field research in Armenia.