Election The 2017 Parliamentary Elections in Armenia in the Light of the New Constitution

On April 2, Armenia held its first parliamentary election with the newly adopted constitution, transforming the country from a presidential to a parliamentary republic. In short the change transfers the substantial executive power from the presidential office to the prime minister and the parliament. The elections have widely been regarded as an important test of the democracy in Armenia.

Published on balticworlds.com on april 7, 2017

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On April 2, Armenia held its first parliamentary election with the newly adopted constitution, transforming the country from a presidential to a parliamentary republic. In short the change transfers the substantial executive power from the presidential office to the prime minister and the parliament. The elections have widely been regarded as an important test of the democracy in Armenia, not only in the sense of its intended distribution of the presidential power among the parliament, but also in regard to the implementation of the election process itself. As many preceding occasions, the result has been a somewhat mixture of contentment and disappointment.

The constitutional amendments were initiated in 2015 and passed in a referendum (December 8) by 66.2% of the votes (50.8% turnout). Many have voiced concern over the new change being a deliberate move for the incumbent president Serzh Sargsyan (Republican Party of Armenia, RPA) to stay in power after his second and last presidential term comes to an end in February 2018. Others have implied that even if Sargsyan would not personally attain an official office,[1] the new constitution would be for RPA to stay in power, as Heritage party leader Raffi Hovannisian has asserted, establishing “a single political party-state.”[2] Sargsyan has denied these allegations, defending the changes as ”part of Armenia’s democratization process,” saying that they would rather empower the opposition.[3] By allowing only parties and political blocs to participate in the elections, the new constitution is said to be designed to empower the collectives rather than individuals.

From an implementation perspective, the election would also be an important test for Armenia’s democracy, especially with the political turmoil of the 2008 presidential election in mind. The clashes between demonstrators and security forces left ten casualties behind and attracted massive international criticism. But perhaps even more significantly, the 2017 elections were a democratic test for the ruling RPA. Having just recently reshuffled the government in September 2016, appointing former Mayor of Yerevan and later the CEO of Armenian-Russian joint venture ArmRosGazprom, Karen Karapetyan, as prime minister, RPA tried to profile itself as a reformed party for coping with political and socioeconomic challenges in Armenia.Some interpreted the substantial reshuffle as the Sargsyan administration’s attempt to mitigate the growing public protests against the existing economic problems and government corruption.[4] Many have been speculating whether Karapetyan will continue as premier minister, not only after the 2017 elections, but also when Sargsyan’s presidential term comes to end in March 2018.[5] There are some indications though which might point to the fact that Sargsyan, at least officially, is letting go of the power.[6] He could though very well continue influencing Armenian politics quite substantially by remaining the head of the Republican Party, but without a parliamentarian seat or an official position.

The Election on April 2, 2017

Although the incumbent RPA government promulgated its commitment to a transparent and democratic procedure,[7] several indications prior to the election day raised reasons for concern. In a joint statement, the European Union delegation to Armenia and the US embassy noted that they were ”concerned by allegations of voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties”.[8]

While about ten parties and political blocs were registered as candidates in the race, the real competition was between the incumbent RPA and the former opposition leader Gagik Tsarukyan’s bloc. Tsarukyan, a former arm wrestler and an influential oligarch and the leader of the Prosperous Party, was more or less forced to leave the politics in March 2015 due to an escalating discord with president Sargsyan.[9] Although Tsarukyan then claimed leaving the politics for good, he announced his comeback in late 2016.[10] Other major contenders in the elections were an alliance headed by the former president Levon Ter-Petrosyan and the alliance between former foreign ministers Raffi Hovannisian (Ter-Petrosyan’s administration) and Vartan Oskanian (Robert Kocharian’s administration) and defense minister Seyran Ohanyan (Sargsyan’s administration, replaced when Karapetyan became premier). Two other main contenders were the newly established Yelk alliance (Way Out Alliance) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF or Dashnaktsutyun, with strong ties to the Armenian diaspora), currently the junior partner in the RPA government.

Polls conducted in March implied a close race between RPA and Tsarukayn’s bloc: RPA, 33%; Tsarukyan, 29%; Yelk, 9% and ARF, 8%.[11] However, the final results gave RPA a comfortable victory, but short of its own majority: RPA, 49.15%; Tsarukyan Bloc, 27.37%; Yelk Bloc, 7.78%; ARF, 6.58%.[12] The turnout of the votes was 60.93%). The 101-seat parliament (parties require to pass a minimum of 5% threshold, while political blocs require a minimum of 7%) is elected for a five-term period would thereby become the main body of power as the current presidential term ends in March 2018. Since RPA failed to achieve a majority on its own, many speculate that RPA will built a coalition with its current junior government partner, the ARF. The results also revealed that the once main opposition bloc led by Ter-Petrosyan has most probably passed its prime in the Armenian political spheres, only managing to gather 1.65% of the votes, thus failing to enter the parliament. Neither did the Hovannisian-Oskanian-Ohanyan coalition (2.07%) managed to secure its place in the parliament.

Although the elections went relatively smoothly and without any major incidents, there were several observed irregularities. Opposition politicians complained about a number of voting irregularities, including violations of ballot secrecy and multiple voting.[13] While Armenia had seemingly not invited international NGOs to observe the election, enticing OSCE to mark this to be “in odds with OSCE commitments”, the Central Election Commission had accredited a total of 28,021 citizen observers along with 640 international observers.[14] The OSCE delegation consisted of around 350 international observers.[15] The OSCE mission noted in its preliminary findings that “Despite welcomed reforms of the legal framework and the introduction of new technologies to reduce the 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.”[16]

Notwithstanding the observed shortcoming, it seemed that, at least for the time being, all involved parties have accepted the outcome of the election without any strong objections.Neither were there any immediate indications for oppositional rallies or similar protests. However, while the everyday life might seem relatively tranquil and the election went much smoother than e.g. the 2008 presidency election, the appearance might be deceiving. The skeptic would ascribe the absence of harsher protests to the general apathy towards the establishment in the anticipated irregularities. In either way, the continued erosion of the confidence in the political system simply cannot go unheeded forever. The frustration is building up and the strained economy together with the rise of tension on the contact line with Azerbaijan over the Karabakh conflict is only heightening the tension in the country.

A Reflection on the Possible Implications

The main topics of the elections, as for several recent occasions, have been the economy, tackling of the wide-spread corruption and of course the issue of the unresolved Karabakh conflict.The landlocked Armenia, bordering with Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, has never quite recovered since it independence from the Soviet Union.Other than the crippling corruption in an oligarchic system, symptomatic for several post-Soviet states, one main reason for Armenia’s suffering economy is the ongoing blockade imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan in connection to the Karabakh conflict. This blockade is nothing short but an evident attempt to freeze Armenia out from regional economic projects and starving it into submission. This policy has been uttered pretty much en clair by giving Armenians two choices: “prosperity without Karabakh or poverty with Karabakh.”[17] This deliberate policy of trying to push Armenia to the degree of poverty that “people will even stop thinking about Karabakh” is confirmed more or less directly, among others by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and other official individuals.[18] In turn, the Karabakh conflict plays a pivotal and catalytic role, albeit an impending one, for a speedy and earnest development of democratic societies in both Armenia and Azerbaijan by effectively holding the opposition at bay. The several coup d’états in Azerbaijan during the early stages of the Karabakh conflict are evident testimonies to the devastating effects such domestic upheaval could amount to in an ongoing armed conflict.

The Karabakh conflict manifests itself yet in another manner in the 2017 Armenian elections, namely in Yerevan’s attempt to profile itself against an increasingly authoritative Azerbaijan. One would claim that the move towards a full-fledged parliamentary republic, other than the speculated calculations to ensure Sargsyan’s and RPA’s continued power, would be a political demarcation against what has been unfolding in neighboring Azerbaijan. As president Aliyev has consolidated his personal power by among others lifting the limits for being re-elected president,[19] extending the presidency term from five to seven years,[20] and recently naming his own wife as vice president,[21] the demise of the democracy in Azerbaijan has become a subject of international scrutiny.[22] Needless to say, Yerevan capitalizes this development to substantiate the Karabakh population’s right to refuse Baku’s suzerainty.

All things considered though, one might be cautiously optimistic about the development in Armenia. The new administration under Karapetyan has started a number of reforms intended for combating corruption, rehabilitating the economy and attracting foreign investors to Armenia. Yerevan has also managed to salvage some of the defunct DCFTA deal (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area) with EU back in 2013 by concluding a new partnership agreement between EU and Armenia in February 2017.[23] Time will tell whether this has been a pre-election appeasement strategy or a sincere policy to cope with the dire need of democratic reforms in Armenia.

References

[1] Armenia’s ruling Republican party leads in parliament vote: exit poll, Reuters, 2 April 2017; reuters.com/article/us-armenia-election-idUSKBN1733VX?il=0

[2] Heritage: Armenia constitutional reform is implemented to establish party-state, News.am, 4 September 2015; news.am/eng/news/284599.html

[3] Armenia’s ruling party leads elections: exit poll, Al-Jazeera, 2 April 2017; aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/armenia-ruling-party-leads-elections-exit-poll-170402163745834.html

[4] New prime minister of Armenia named after months of protests, UPI, 13 September 2016; upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2016/09/13/New-prime-minister-of-Armenia-named-after-months-of-protests/2561473774749

[5] “Serzh Sargsyan appoints Karen Karapetyan to ‘stand in for him’ until 2018”. StyopaSafaryan, Aravot, 28 Novenmber 2016; en.aravot.am/2016/11/28/184577

[6] President Sargsyan comments on not being included in RPA electoral list, Armenpress, 3 March 2017; armenpress.am/eng/news/881103/president-sargsyan-comments-on-not-being-included-in-rpa-electoral-list.html

[7] See e.g. Serzh Sargsyan: Karen Karapetyan to be the prime Minister if RPA wins Parliamentary race, Armeninfo, 26 November 2016; arminfo.info/full_news.php?id=23115&lang=3 and Eduard Sharmazanov: All preconditions created for holding transparent elections, Panorama.am, 16 March 2017; panorama.am/en/news/2017/03/16/Eduard-Sharmazanov/1745617.

[8] Republican Party and Prosperous Armenia ‘in close race’, Al-Jazeera, 2 April 2017; aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/republican-party-prosperous-armenia-close-race-170402052617034.html

[9] Тsarukyan leaving political field in Armenia, Arka.am, 5 March 2015; arka.am/en/news/politics/tsarukyan_leaving_political_field_in_armenia_/

[10] Gagik Tsarukyan to Return to Armenian Politics, The Armenian Weekly, 6 December 2016; armenianweekly.com/2016/12/05/tsarukyan-to-return-to-politics

[11] Public Opinion Poll Armenia, Joint poll by Yerkir media, Gallup and ASA, March 2017; asa.sci.am/downloads/news_pdf/Poll%20presentation%20for%20press%20conf%20final%20ENG.pdf

[12] Parliamentary election 2017: Central Electoral Commission sums up preliminary results of voting, Armenpress, 3 April 2017; armenpress.am/eng/news/885297/parliamentary-election-2017-central-electoral-commission-sums-up-preliminary-results-of-voting.html

[13] Armenian republican ruling party takes lead in election preliminary results, Deutsche Welle, 2 April 2017; dw.com/en/armenian-republican-ruling-party-takes-lead-in-election-preliminary-results/a-38254488

[14] Armenia, Parliamentary Elections, 2 April 2017: Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, OSCE, 3 April 2017, p. 12; osce.org/office-for-democratic-institutions-and-human-rights/elections/armenia/309156?download=true

[15] Bekkevold to lead delegation to Armenian elections, Stortinget, 31 March 2017; stortinget.no/en/In-English/About-the-Storting/News-archive/Front-page-news/2016-2017/bekkevold-to-lead-delegation-to-armenian-elections/

[16] Armenia, Parliamentary Elections, 2 April 2017: Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, OSCE, 3 April 2017; osce.org/office-for-democratic-institutions-and-human-rights/elections/armenia/309156?download=true

[17] Galib Mammadov, Nagorno Karabakh Conflict: Armenia’s Victory or Nightmare?, in Foreign Policy Journal, 13 October 2011; foreignpolicyjournal.com/2011/10/13/nagorno-karabakh-conflict-armeniasvictory-or-nightmare-2

[18] Enes Ibrahim, Armenia’s aggressive policies main Obstacle for the country’s development, in News.az, 31 October 2011; news.az/articles/politics/47854. See also Ilham Aliyev, Karabakh’s independence will never be subject of Negotiations, Aliyev, in News.az, 13 July 2011; news.az/articles/politics/40321

[19] Azeris end president’s term limit, BBC, 19 March 2009; news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7949327.stm

[20] Azerbaijan holds referendum to extend president’s term, Reuters, 26 September 2016; reuters.com/article/us-azerbaijan-presidency-term-idUSKCN11W1L7

[21] Aliyev Appoints Wife As First Vice President Of Azerbaijan, RFERL, 21 February 2017; rferl.org/a/azerbaijan-aliyev-names-wife-aliyeva-vice-president/28322210.html

[22] See e.g. European Parliament resolution of 10 September 2015 on Azerbaijan (2015/2840(RSP)), European Parliament, 10 September 2015; europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//NONSGML+TA+P8-TA-2015-0316+0+DOC+PDF+V0//EN

[23] Remarks by President Donald Tusk after his meeting with President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan, European Council, Council of the European Union, 27 February 2017; consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2017/02/27-tusk-meeting-president-armenia-sargsyan. For an article in regard to the foiled DCFTA agreement in 2013 see Vahagn Avedian, The Unsustainable European Policy towards the South Caucasus, Foreign Policy Journal, 31 October 2013; foreignpolicyjournal.com/2013/10/31/the-unsustainable-european-policy-towards-the-south-caucasus/view-all

  • by Vahagn Avedian

    Vahagn Avedian is the editor of Armenica.org and its related information sites about Armenia and its history, including the Karabakh Conflict. He is currently completing his Ph.D. thesis at the History Department of Lund University.

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