Election Armenian Presidential elections Unexciting at first sight, but potentially momentous in the long run

More than twenty-five years after gaining independence, Armenia is yet to undergo a democratically instigated change of power. It can no longer be said that Armenia is still a state in transition. On the contrary, in many respects, the lately held Presidential elections illustrate that the country is currently moving away from democracy in order to strengthen the authoritarian regime ruled by the ‘party of power’, the Republican Party.

Published on balticworlds.com on mars 7, 2018

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On 2 March 2018, the Armenian National Assembly has elected Armen Sarkisyan – the only candidate nominated – as new President. The former University Professor, Prime Minister, and Armenian ambassador to the UK is set to replace the incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan, who designated him as his successor. In fact, Sargsyan’s second and last term in office officially ends in April 2018. What seems at first sight a rather unexciting election, gauged to have no decisive effect on the political situation in the country, could prove to be potentially momentous for the democratic development in Armenia in the long run.

Abolition of direct Presidential elections

For the first time, the President was not elected by means of direct elections. Of 101 Armenian lawmakers (the majority belongs to the ruling (HHK) Republican Party of Armenia) ninety voted for him, ten against and one abstained. A controversial constitutional reform and ensuing referendum, initiated in 2015, paved the way for a shift of the political system in the country from a semi-Presidential to a parliamentary form of governance, entailing a transfer of power and key prerogatives from the Presidential to the Prime Minister’s office. The office of President is to be politically relegated and limited to symbolic and representative functions. Political powers to be transferred to the Prime Minister include, among others, foreign and defence policies, notably the supreme command of the military forces in wartime and oversight of the security structures. These are particular sensitive policy fields in Armenia, with an unsettled conflict in Nagorny-Karabagh, hostile relations with neighbouring Azerbaijan and Turkey and domestic political crises, such as the July 2016 Erebuni hostage-taking, when a group of former Karabagh fighters captured a police station in Yerevan demanding the resignation of President Sargsyan and resulting in three people being killed.

Multi-vector foreign policy

Although Sargsyan has repeatedly denied it, it is widely assumed that he seeks the post of Prime Minister, supposed to be elected by the National Assembly in April 2018. In the meanwhile, is not clear what will happen to current Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan. Relatively popular in society, he preserved an image as both a reformer and a cultivator of ties with Russia. In addition, he managed to secure several important investment deals for the country (such as hydroelectric plants to be built by oligarch Samvel Karapetyan) that rest on his personal connections and could be at stake in case of his removal. [1] Serzh Sargsyan and his Republican Party (member of the European People’s Party) in the meanwhile will continue to pursue a multi-vector foreign policy, which involves good relations with both Russia and the West.

Armenian party landscape

The Republican Party, in fact, is said to lack a coherent ideology. So do the other eight parties that competed during past parliamentary elections in April 2017. Almost all parties were accused of lacking innovative ideas, not to mention political alternatives. Most relevant during elections in Armenia are usually security and military-related questions. The smouldering conflict with Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and the equally problematic relationship with neighbouring Turkey are traditionally important issues. By contrast, the country’s highly contentious social issues, such as education and social welfare, play a rather marginal role, despite the fact that according to unofficial estimations 40-50 per cent of the population live under the poverty line. Young people, in particular, conclude from this state of affairs that there is no real contest anyway.

The Tsarukyan Alliance, a political movement named after government challenger and businessman Gagik Tsarukyan, who in the run-up to the elections renounced to run himself for a symbolic post, agreed to vote for Sarkisyan. The only party to be considered an actual oppositional party, the liberal pro-European Yelk Alliance (in Armenian: the “Way Out” Alliance) was united in its vote against the single candidate Sarkisyan.  Admittedly, this young party 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 after April 2017 parliamentary elections.

Social mood and recent protests

In the context of elections, large parts of the Armenian population often report a feeling of resignation, creating the impression that many Armenians have actually little knowledge about and hence little interest in the political processes in their country. In a recent survey by the Caucasus Barometer 59 per cent of the population fully or rather distrusts the executive government.[2] Asked whether they would participate in national elections if they were held next Sunday the percentage of positive replies sank from 79 to 71 percent from 2015 to 2017 and those would refuse rose from 19 to 27 per cent.[3] Yet, many young, especially urban and educated, people do not want to content themselves with political and social apathy. Supported by young returnees from the Diaspora, they drive a new sense of activism in Armenia and participated in numerous initiatives during the recent protest cycle. Thus, by  being the driving force for late street protest movements, such as Mashtots Park (2012), Electric Yerevan (2015), and Khorenatsi (2016), many of these people nevertheless remain confident that examples of short-lived social protests in Armenia can perhaps one day translate into a more permanent form of political action.

In fact, it was a logic step for Serzh Sargsyan and the government to abolish Presidential elections, which in the past were repeatedly an occasion for the opposition to rally against the government, a time of political unrest and uncertainty from the perspective of the ruling regime. A traumatic experience for both the regime and society were the Presidential elections of March 2008, when thousands of Armenians gathered on central Liberty Square in order to protest against alleged election fraud and ten people were killed during the contestation between police forces and protesters.

Armenia pursuing authoritarian trend

More than twenty-five years after gaining independence, Armenia is yet to undergo a democratically instigated change of power. It can no longer be said that Armenia is still a state in transition. On the contrary, in many respects, the lately held Presidential elections illustrate that the country is currently moving away from democracy in order to strengthen the authoritarian regime ruled by the ‘party of power’, the Republican Party.

Despite the general belief that parliamentary political systems would foster democratic development, in the post-Soviet space parliamentary systems have been as prone to authoritarian turns as Presidential ones. This is particularly the case when party systems are still not consolidated and volatile. Neighbouring Georgia has been pursuing plans to strengthen its parliamentary democracy for several years now. The Republic of Moldova already moved in 2000 from a Presidential to a parliamentary system, however re-introduced in 2016 direct elections of the President. In both countries, ambitions by incumbent Presidents to increase their powers are nevertheless visible. Serzh Sargsyan has chosen a path of seemingly reforming the political system in order to actually strengthening his authoritarian grip of the state. In the months to come, the parliament is also supposed to elect new members of the Armenian Constitutional Court and of the Anti-Corruption council headed by the Prime Minister.

References

[1] https://eurasianet.org/s/armenia-prepares-to-empower-prime-minister-downgrade-president

[2] http://caucasusbarometer.org/en/cb2017am/TRUEXEC/

[3] http://caucasusbarometer.org/en/cb-am/VOTPRCP/

  • by Nadja Douglas

    Is a researcher at the Berlin-based Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS). She focuses in her work on the dynamics between civic initiatives and state power structures, regional conflicts and civil-military relations in the post-Soviet region. She holds a Master's degree in International Relations from Sciences Po Paris and a PhD from Humboldt University Berlin. Her thesis deals with public control of armed forces in the Russian Federation and was published in 2017 by Palgrave Macmillan.

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