Photo: Astghik Bedevian.

Andrey Sorokin, head OSCE office Yerevan and Karen Andreasian, human rights ombudsman.

Election Armenian parliamentary elections 2012 – an extremely well scrutinized operation

A week before elections the head of the Armenian Central Election Committee announced that the Armenian parliamentary election would be monitored by over 30 000 observers, both foreign and domestic. The elections in Armenia 2012 were far from revolutionary, but perhaps it was a sign of a gradual evolution of Armenian democracy towards normality. The election results have not yet being challenged and parliament is better representing the political forces in the country and the party system is more consolidated.

Published on on May 9, 2012

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The 6th of May four European countries went to the polls: France, Greece, Serbia and Armenia. Among these elections the Armenian parliamentary election probably received the least media attention but was on the other hand the most monitored by election observation organizations. The 2012 Armenian parliamentary elections was an extremely well scrutinized operation. A week before elections the head of the Armenian Central Election Committee announced that the Armenian parliamentary election would be monitored by over 30 000 observers, both foreign and domestic. At least ten international and 54 local organizations carried out observation missions.  The OSCE/ODIHR (the most prestigious and specialized election observers of the International Community) observation mission was about the same size as the one it sent to the Russian presidential elections in March, an election that received far more global attention than the Armenian one. In a country with about 2.5 million registered voters and about 2000 polling stations this means a tremendous observation effort. One might ask why this was necessary.

An election observation mission can be composed of experts assessing legal and technical changes, long terms observers monitoring the election campaign, and short term observers observing the conduct on Election Day. In the elections this weekend OSCE/ODIHR sent no mission to France, experts to Greece, long term observers to Serbia, and the whole range of observers to Armenia. (OSCE/ODIHR, Ongoing election activities,  A massive election observation exercise is not in itself a sign that a countries democracy is in a bad shape.  Rather it is a sign that things are happening that is of interest to the International Community to investigate and an interest from the country in question to gain approval from the outside world. Boycott of observers, on the other hand, which happened in the 2008 Russian elections, is a signal of distress, as it shows profound disagreement between the organizer of elections and the International Community. Election observation is also not only targeted at new democracies. A better way of describing it is that monitoring seeks out evolving democracies. In the recent Norwegian local elections OSCE experts monitored the experiment with electronic voting and assessed its compliance with European standards. The reason why no mission was sent to France was, according to OSCE, that no changes worth mentioning had been made to the electoral system. A massive mobilization of observers is, thus, a sign that both international and domestic forces share an interest in showing the progress of an evolving democracy, and a hope of change for the better.  

In the case of Armenia the elections was seen as a chance for the government to show to the world and its citizens that it has changed its ways since the last presidential elections in 2008, and broken a trend of a deteriorating political climate. After the 2008 elections the opposition claimed widespread falsification and carried out massive protests. The protests ended in tragedy as the government declared a state of emergency and violently beat down the protesters.  The confrontation resulted in ten deaths, many more wounded and thousands of protesters put in prison. These events have since poisoned the political atmosphere in the country. The situation did not begin to normalize until 2011 when parliament proclaimed a general amnesty for those taking part in the protests and investigations regarding what happened and who was responsible were reopened.  But still a general lack of trust in the political elites and politics was evident. According to an opinion poll made before elections ( Armenians had very low trust not only in their politicians and government officials, who were considered to be too closely linked to business interests and bent on enriching themselves, but also in their fellow citizens, who were considered to expect financial compensation to vote. All of this created a kind of resentment of politics that said that engaging in politics is futile. The oligarchs (politicians/businessmen) were understood as being above the law and the people were said to sell their votes for a gift or a small amount of cash. The feeling was that elections in such an environment thus could be nothing but a charade.

The hope of the elections in 2012 was that, if they were considered free and fair, could serve as a starting point to normalize relations between the political groups in the country and begin to restore faith in politics. A successful election would be an election that no party could seriously challenge, paving the way for less confrontational politics. Hopefully this could begin a process of normalization of politics and show that parliamentary politics can make a difference in the lives of people. For Armenia as a European state it was also important to be seen as serious in its commitments to democratic rule, otherwise further integration with Europe and the soft security it provides could be put into question.

In the election eight parties and one party bloc competed for 90 seats in parliament. The threshold is 5% for parties and 7% for party blocs. The remaining 41 seats are single seat constituencies.  The two dominating parties in the old parliament and in opinion polls were the Republican Party and the Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP).  The Republican Party is the current president Serzh Sargsyan’s party and headed the majority coalition in parliament together with the smaller Rule of Law Party. PAP is led by Gagik Tsarukian who is considered to be one of the richest businessmen in Armenia.  It was until recently part of the ruling coalition, but positioned itself against the current government and engaged in cooperation with the Armenian National Congress (ANC) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) in a joint headquarters to ensure a fair election campaign. The ANC is a coalition of parties outside parliament founded after the 2008 events, and led by Armenia’s first president Levon Ter-Petrosyan. The ARF is connected to the Armenian Diaspora and has been in existence since the 1890ies. It has affiliations all over the world, and is also represented in the parliament of Lebanon. The last contender in the election is the Heritage Party, which has distanced itself from both the government and the opposition forces.

I visited Yerevan about a month before elections and had the chance to speak with analysts and political activists. Commentators before elections were not overly optimistic that a change in the composition in parliament would mean a new political climate. Even though elections would probably be calm and largely free from open fraud and violence, the names on the party lists basically contained the same old politicians. Things would therefore most likely return to business as usual after elections, meaning that politics would remain mainly a way of securing business interests of the elites. There were also concerns about the practices of vote buying.  Armenia is a very poor country and “people want their bribes”. There were however also some signs that the political apathy was beginning to lift. One such sign was the apparent break up between the two major ruling coalition parties, the Republicans and PAP. This had made the elections truly competitive. Another hopeful sign was that a new wave of youth activism was showing itself, inspired by the global “Occupy movement” and focusing on issues like environmental problems and corruption.  In February urban activists occupied a couple of kiosks being constructed in a public park in the center of Yerevan. The activists protested against privatization of public spaces, construction in green zones, and against oligarchs acting as if they were above the law. Their main demands were that the legal requirements should be fulfilled before construction. The protests became symbolic of a new atmosphere as the activists were unafraid of police and their occupation was allowed to continue, creating a symbolic win of ordinary citizens against the oligarchs. During the election campaign the occupation also gained political importance. A week before election the president of Armenia gave his support to the demonstrators and asked the mayor of Yerevan to remove the kiosks from the park.

The election campaign thus made politicians more concerned about the issues in society. There were political debates held and a growing awareness that job creation was the key issue to be solved. Job creation was obviously important in a country with underemployment, but it was also presented as a security issue. If jobs were not created the drain of people would not be stopped and the economy would stagnate, and if Armenia failed to keep up with Azerbaijan in economic terms this would eventually change the military status quo and increase the risk for war. Economic and political development thus is seen as a matter of survival. One political analyst described the situation to me in literary terms: “if Azerbaijani politics is Shakespearian, like Macbeth, with father-son dynamics, then Armenian politics is more James Fenimore Cooper, the Last of the Mohicans”.  The Mohicans being the old guard of oligarchs that grew rich during the Nagorno-Karabach war. Since the war Armenian economy has been characterized by monopolies on imports of basic goods like sugar and cigarettes. There are signs that a new breed among the elites now challenges the monopolies and wish to open up Armenia more to the outside world in order to attract investments and stimulate growth of the economy. The coming to life of the PAP could mean a brewing internal struggle among the ruling elites. A less monopolistic economy would hopefully also lead to a more pluralistic type of politics. The challenge that remains is to get the oligarchs to work within the laws.

The result of the election largely confirmed the expectations before elections. Observers described the conduct of the elections as a whole as improved, although many concerns remained and improvements could be made.  There were reports of misconduct and pressure on voters that affected the political playing field before elections. There had also been a number of incidents with people who got beat up and problems with the ink that was used to stamp passports to prove that people had voted. But there was no evidence of systematic fraud that affected the results and the official result did not differ much from the result in exit polls made by international polling organizations such as Gallup. Voter turnout was around 62 %, which was a little bit higher than in 2007, and described as impressive. The main problem was vote buying and control of the voter lists. In general the tone was that Armenia had made an important first step on the road to recovery, stressing the need for the Armenians to be proud, but not content.   

“I cannot stress enough how important it is to see these elections and our preliminary findings in the broader context and as the beginning of the process, not the end,” said Krzysztof Lisek, the Head of the European Parliament delegation. “Our preliminary conclusions today and the final recommendations of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, once they are published, should be taken as the goal to achieve in view of the upcoming presidential election.” (OSCE press release 7 may 2012

The actual results were not that dramatic. The Republican Party increased its support among the electorate from 34% to 44%, remained the biggest party in parliament and managed to secure a majority with the help of the single seat constituencies. The new opposition force, PAP, almost doubled its support from about 15% to about 30%. The main drama during the tabulation of results was if the smaller parties should pass the threshold. The previous extra parliamentary opposition in the ANC managed to pass the 7% threshold and enter parliament and all the three smaller parties with representation in the old parliament managed to clear the 5% threshold. What, then, is the significance of the results?

One thing is that there are no clear losers. Although the smaller parties lose representatives no one is shifting places and everyone can entrench their position in preparation for the next round in the game. In the mainly personality focused political landscape this year’s parliamentary election is often described as a preparation for next year’s presidential election. There are now at least three distinct forces in the parliament that can serve as platforms for the presidential campaign. One persistent rumor is that the former president Robert Kocharyan is behind the repositioning of Prosperous Armenia. This means that next year’s presidential election could be a race between three presidents: The current president Sargsyan, the first president Ter-Petrosyan and the second president Kocharyan. 

Another thing is that cleaner elections in Armenia may set a new standard for the region. The countries in the South Caucasus region look at each other as competitors in terms of what is possible to achieve given the circumstances. They are also often lumped together in the eyes of the world. If one country shows that something is possible then this creates a pressure on the rest. Parliamentary elections will be held in neighboring Georgia in October and Georgia likes, since the Rose Revolution 2003, to present itself as leader in the region when it comes to liberal standards.

The elections in Armenia 2012 were far from revolutionary, but perhaps it was a sign of a gradual evolution of Armenian democracy towards normality. The election results have not yet being challenged and parliament is better representing the political forces in the country and the party system is more consolidated. This also reflects that people know their politicians and have more realistic expectations. If we believe in parliamentary politics, flawed as it is, the gradual acceptance of election results could bring more faith in politics. Perhaps next parliamentary election the observation effort from the International Community will be more moderate in size. Meanwhile the next crucial test for Armenia will be the presidential elections 2013. Whether that race will be truly competitive or not remains to be seen.  But the observer’s findings this time means new goals for Armenia to meet.

To note, Armenia’s Central Electoral Commission has issued the preliminary results of the May 6 parliamentary elections. Five parties and one political bloc will be represented in the 131-seat National Assembly (Parliament) of Armenia:

Republican Party of Armenia – 44.05% (663,066 votes),
Prosperous Armenia Party – 30.20% (454,684 votes),
Armenian National Congress – 7.10% (106,910 votes),
Heritage Party – 5.79% (87,095 votes),
ARF Dashnaktsutyun Party – 5.73% (86, 296 votes)
Orinats Yerkir Party – 5.49% (82,690 votes).
  • by Anders Nordström

    Anders Nordström has a Ph.D. in political science and is post doctoral researcher at CBEES since 2010. His main specialization is European politics, transnational regulation and international organizations monitoring of states with a focus on the Council of Europe and the Eastern Enlargement of this organization.

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