Armenia – Shortcomings in the parliamentary elections and the long shadow of the future

On 2 April 2017, a parliamentary election took place in Armenia. This was a particularly remarkable event in the political life of the country, as it was the first national vote after the approval of the constitutional reform, in December 2015 and the subsequent adoption of a new electoral code. The victory of the Republican Party, which has been in power since 1999, makes it possible for the incumbent, President Serzh Sargsyan, to think of taking on a prominent political role after the end of his second (and last) presidential mandate in 2018. In spite of the emphasis by the ruling political cadres, the president included[1], on the proper management of the electoral process, domestic and international observers have lamented malpractices both during the electoral campaign and the election itself. In spite of these concerns, most international observers have refrained from condemning the overall result.  This post will offer a detailed account of these issues.

RESULTS

On Monday 10 April, the results were published by the Central Committee Election (CEC).

Of the 105 seats in Parliament, 58 were won by the Republican Party, 31 by the Tsaroukyan bloc (led by the businessman Tagik Tsaroukyan), 9 by the Yeld bloc, and 7 by the Dashnaktsutyun Party (ARF) [2]. As prescribed by the new electoral code, four representatives of ethnic minorities were elected under a special quota. Three of them were allied with the Republican party (Assyrian, Kurdish and Yazidi) while the other one, a representative of the Russian community, run with the Tsaroukyan bloc.

The formations which did not meet the 5% threshold, and therefore were not assigned any seat, were: the ANC–PPA Alliance, the Ohanyan-Raffi-Oskanian Alliance, Armenian Renaissance, the Free Democrats Party and the Armenian Communist Party.

While the results could be interpreted as a narrow victory for the Republican party and will mean that the party will probably resort to a coalition, it is undoubtedly a more favourable result than what was predicted by surveys immediately before the election[3].  Notably, the opinion polls released at the end of March by the KOG Institute and the Demokratijos projektai foresaw the “Tsarukyan bloc” as the clear-cut winner, with 40,4% of the vote, and the ruling Republican Party collapsing to 19.4%. Meanwhile, the poll organised by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) predicted the Tsarkukian’s bloc would gain 41% of preferences, and the Republican Party 39%.

THE CAMPAIGN

This plurality of candidates had an impact on the electoral campaign, which was characterised by an unusual level of activism by candidates. Most of them were campaigned on a similar political platform, based on day-to-day economic issues, such as unemployment, low salaries and rampant emigration rather than macro issues such as any geopolitical confrontation. Citizens reported an unusually high number of visits from party representatives and pamphlets sent to their address. In spite of this genuine electoral competition, some misconduct has been reported. Notably, at the end of March, the Union of Informed Citizens (UIC), an Armenian civic organisation, declared that school principals across the country were urging their staff and their students’ families to cast their vote for the Republican Party. While the ruling party did not deny this allegation tout court, the actions were dismissed as the spontaneous campaign of private citizens in a manner that was perfectly consistent with the provisions of the electoral code. This last point was contradicted by the UIC’s findings, which outlined 136 cases of school directors being given instructions by representatives of the Republican Party[4]. Due to these episodes, the opposition ORO and YELK blocs appealed to the CEC, asking for the disqualification of the Republican Party. Both appeals were rejected.

In addition, some disinformation campaigns seemed having been attempted.

In March, some Russian Twitter accounts posted the above e-mail supposedly leaked from USAID to demonstrate that external forces were actively manipulating the election results. USAID immediately dismissed the e-mail as a fraud, claiming that the staff would not have sent anything like that (in broken English) from a Gmail account.

External actors were concerned about the conduct of the campaign. On 16 March  Piotr Switalski, the head of the EU delegation in Armenia, invited Armenian voters not to get involved in electoral fraud, either by participating actively or by looking the other way. During his speech, he openly mentioned vote-buying, saying: “Don’t be exposed to the temptation of selling your vote. You may be approached by people who will be offering you money, services, promises in exchange for your vote. There is no money in the world that can be worth selling your vote”. This was not an isolated comment, as, in the following weeks, the United States and the EU Mission in Armenia put out a joint statement noting their concern about: “allegations of voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties.” In other words, in spite of the electronic system of voter identification provided by international donors (already mentioned in this blog), foreign diplomats based in Yerevan voiced their concern about a fraudulent electoral environment.

ASSESSING THE VOTE

Most assessments of the Election Day, except by the CIS monitoring mission[5], mentioned some types of irregularities. However, external observers refrained from labelling the overall process as not free and fair. The International Election Observation Mission (EOM) reported that: “The 2 April parliamentary elections were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected. [However], the elections were tainted by credible information about vote-buying, and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies”. In other words, while the overall process was not dismissed as fraudulent, the broader electoral climate was described as plagued by illegal practices and petty corruption. A similarly cautious statement was made by an EEAS spokesperson who, while fully endorsing all the shortcomings pointed out by the EOM, commented that: “The election result nevertheless reflects the overall will of the Armenian people”. It also added: “We look forward to working with the democratically elected new Parliament and Government”. This statement was not complemented by any declaration of the EU delegation in Armenia, as ambassador Switalski declined to comment on the electoral result.

Domestic criticism, from both civic and political activists, was much more critical. The Citizen Observer Initiative denounced widespread violations in the conduct of the elections, outlining episodes such as controlled voting, the manipulation of voter lists, pressure and bribes, inefficient commission work, insufficient vigilance at polling stations, and the failure of the technical devices[6]. The unelected ANC-PPA not only complained about fraud, but formally appealed to the CEC for the invalidation of the electoral result. Even though this claim was rejected[7], the parliamentary election results were annulled in a central village in the Aragatsotn province due to widespread fraud. Remarkably, the handing out of vote bribes was admitted even by Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesperson of the Republic Party, who, however, added that isolated episodes did not affect the overall result. In spite of the shortcomings mentioned above, plus others that had not been included in this post (for reasons of space), people did not take to the streets to demonstrate against the dubious result. That is surprising, considering that, in the past years, elections have almost always triggered widespread demonstrations. Notably, both in 2008 and in 2013, several thousand activists protested against the allegedly rigged presidential election[8].

WHAT ABOUT THE PRESIDENT?

In spite of all the controversies, both during the campaign and the vote, the Republican Party has emerged as the winner of this election. While the current Prime Minister, Karapetyan, will keep his job until May 2018, the scenario after the end of the presidential mandate of Serzh Sargsyan is still to be defined. As reported previously in this blog, the recent constitutional reform will reduce the prerogatives of the president, making this office mainly ceremonial, and increase those of the prime minister. This power-sharing innovation, introduced shortly before the end of the second presidential mandate of Serzh Sargsyan, has been widely interpreted as an attempt by Sargysan to avoid relinquishing power. For his part, Mr Sargsyan has been extremely laconic in declarations about his future plans. For example, a few days after the elections, he declared in an interview: “I have never planned where I will be in the next stage of my life. I always found myself in places where I was of greater help to our security.” Turning to Prime Minister Karapetyan, he is by far one of the most popular figures in the party. Even though he was not a candidate for parliament, since he did not meet the residency requirement, his image dominated the campaign of the Republican Party. However, he does not seem to have a solid support network in Yerevan that would enable him to determine his own political future. In conclusion, while no open declaration about the future of Mr Sargsyan has been made, this electoral success may give him the option of avoiding an early political retirement.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Serzh Sargsyan: Big work has been done on conducting elections in accordance to international criteria”, April 3 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Armenian CEC presented the final results of Parliamentary elections”, April 10 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] Some speculations are made on the relationship between the Republican party and the Tsarukyan bloc. For example, it has been hypothesised that President Sargsyan covertly supported it, since it subtracted support from other opposition forces. Similarly, before the elections, the analyst Emil Danielyan conjectured about Tsarukyan and Sargsyan having a “tacit understanding” for the future, which could lead either to a formal coalition or a role for the ‘Tsarukyan bloc’ as “constructive opposition”. As of this writing (11/04/2017), a coalition between the two has not been announced.

[4] Some school principals involved have sued the Civic Initiative which brought the scandal up to public attention.

[5] Armenpress News Agency (English). 2017. ‘CIS observer mission assesses Armenia’s parliamentary election as “open and transparent”’, 3 April (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2017. “Armenia: Observers say polls tainted by vote-buying, pressure”, April 3 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[7] Arminfo News Agency. 2017. “Sharmazanov to Ter-Petrosyan: Parliamentary elections are the best indicator of Armenia’s democratic development”, April 10 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] Loda, Chiara. “Perception of the EU in Armenia: A View from the Government and Society.” In Caucasus, the EU and Russia-Triangular Cooperation?, pp. 131-152. Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG, 2016, 146.

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