Parliamentary Elections Yet Another Test for Democracy in Armenia

by | March 15th, 2012 | 14 comments
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With parliamentary elections in Armenia scheduled for 6 May, Onnik Krikorian interviews American-Armenian analyst Richard Giragosian on the political situation in the country as the vote draws closer.

As Armenia prepares to hold its next parliamentary elections on May 6, 2012, at stake are not only the 131 seats to be contested in the National Assembly, but also the country’s reputation worldwide. While the last parliamentary elections held in May 2007 were a step forward according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the international body also noted that “the stated intention by the Armenian authorities to conduct an election in line with OSCE commitments and international standards was not fully realized.”

Indeed, as in past elections, the ruling party of power swept the floor amid allegations from the opposition and civil society organizations of vote-buying and outright falsification. However the landslide was attained, it meant that the Republican Party, led by then Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, held 64 seats in the National Assembly. Its closest rival, the Prosperous Armenia party of MP businessman Gagik Tsarukian, managed just 18. Other governmental loyalists, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation – Dashnaktsutyun (ARF-D) and Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law), received just 16 and 9 respectively.

Left: Following the bitterly disputed 2008 presidential elections, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his administration will be under close international scrutiny in the coming parliamentary vote. Right: Believed to be the richest man in Armenia, MP Businessman Gagik Tsarukian and his Prosperous Armenia party are believed by some to represent the biggest challenge to the President's Republican Party.

More significantly, perhaps, the opposition led by those sympathetic to Armenia’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, was nowhere in sight, leaving only Heritage’s seven seats as a genuine check on a massive and effectively pro-governmental parliamentary majority. Turnout was just under 60 percent of those eligible to vote, but even if the elections were considered a modest step forward, clashes following the presidential election the following year, described as ‘significantly worse’ in a U.S. Embassy Cable released by Wikileaks, have since raised difficult questions over Armenia’s democratic direction.

Ten people died in the post-election unrest and a controversial Emergency Rule Law passed on March 1, 2012, four years to the day since the bloody clashes, has only raised more concerns. Certainly, given the internal political situation in the country since then, it is unlikely that the government can afford any repeat of similar post-election protests.

“There is a new reality in Armenia,” says American-Armenian analyst Richard Giragosian, Director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center (RSC). “Society has changed with people no longer content to witness yet another round of flawed and fixed elections. While frustration over the February 19, 2008 presidential election simmered, the real outrage erupted once the Armenian authorities decided to forcibly disperse the unarmed demonstrators who had gathered for several weeks in a peaceful and generally well-organized public protest.”

Since the 2007 and 2008 vote, however, many other things have changed in the political life of the country with the coalition government comprising the Republican Party, Prosperous Armenia, Orinats Yerkir, and the ARF-D, minus the latter, following its disagreement with its partners over attempts to normalize relations with Turkey. Tensions between the two main governmental forces, the Republican Party and Prosperous Armenia, are also considered to be on the rise with its leader, Gagik Tsarukian, so far silent on whether he will back the incumbent president for re-election next year.

Tsarukian, a former world arm wrestling champion believed to be the richest of Armenia’s oligarchs, is also considered close to Sarkisian’s predecessor as president, Robert Kocharian. Moreover, even if no party enjoys widespread support, his party represents the strongest challenge to the ruling Republicans — for now at least. Indeed, adding to existing speculation about the party’s chances, former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian joined Prosperous Armenia last month, but Giragosian is unimpressed.

“Although Oskanian’s decision to enter or re-enter politics may stem from his stated goals of seeking political change from within, many see the move as related to his close relationship with former President Kocharian,” he says. “In that context, some see Oskanian as moving to strengthen the pro-Kocharian Prosperous Armenia party. Either way, although his possible role as a parliamentarian would help to raise the level of debate and discourse, I do think that this move weakens him politically as it means that he can no longer present himself as an independent third force in politics.”

At the same time, and despite the demonstrations after the 2008 presidential vote, momentum behind Ter-Petrossian’s Armenian National Congress (ANC) has since faltered and divisions within the extra-parliamentary opposition alliance have already seen one splinter group, the Free Democrats, emerge. Last week, another four parties announced their departure from the ANC because of disagreements with Ter-Petrossian, but more significantly perhaps, this strong competition between the Republican Party and Prosperous Armenia still seems most likely to determine the conduct of the coming elections.

“Clearly there is a serious rivalry between the parties, and the deepening and intensifying conflict within the ruling coalition continues to define the country’s pre-election period,” says Giragosian. “In line with developments throughout 2011, the most significant political issue continues to be the significant clash within the pro-government coalition itself, replacing the more traditional past political conflict between the opposition and the government. As the pre-election period intensifies, this conflict between the Republican and Prosperous Armenia parties can only be expected to escalate.”

One example of this rivalry recently became apparent when Radio Free Europe (RFE) reported that Vartan Ghalumian, the Prosperous Armenia-affiliated Mayor of Ijevan, accused his Republican Party predecessor of using party loyalists to paralyze the legislative body for the administrative center of Armenia’s North Eastern Tavoush region by boycotting sessions. Days earlier on International Women’s Day, in what many saw as an election gimmick, both the Prosperous Armenia and Republican Party competed for attention by distributing free gifts and flowers in local schools and kindergartens.

Yet, compared to previous elections, that pales into insignificance compared to what could transpire if bitter rivalry surfaces and remains unchecked. In the 2007 parliamentary vote, for example, two Prosperous Armenia election campaign offices in Yerevan were bombed. There were no casualties, but fingers were pointed at the Republican Party even though they denied responsibility.

An opposition demonstration in late 2007 following parliamentary elections the same year and just months before the last presidential vote. Since then, although voter apathy remains high, opposition and other activists have become more visible in Armenia.

Regardless, such rivalry does not bode well for the coming vote, some opine, with 37 percent of Armenians already believing national politics is heading in the wrong direction and only 18 percent believing otherwise according to a 2010 household survey conducted by the Caucasus Resource Research Centers (CRRC). Although CRRC’s data for 2011 has yet to be released, it has already been suggested by those who have seen it that little has changed. Moreover, as with past votes in Armenia, it remains to be seen whether policies and issues will finally win out over personalities.

For now, Giragosian says the extent of apathy among the population is not as noticeable as before with a small but active environmental protest movement and concerns over deaths in the military adding to already existing disgruntlement about financial hardship and unemployment. “This economic undercurrent of discontent is only increasing, especially as the Armenian authorities are now facing the onset of the effects from the global financial and economic crisis,” Giragosian says. “Moreover, widening disparities in wealth and income have led to a serious socioeconomic divide.

According to the analyst, this division is especially pronounced in terms of the inequality between the capital, Yerevan, and the regions, with the situation further exacerbated by inadequate essential public services such as health, education and other social services. “Most clearly the Armenian government must now learn to govern — not just rule — the country,” he says. “But if the Armenian government fails to fully overcome these challenges, we may expect a seriously explosive situation.”

Therefore, as the first national elections since the 2008 unrest, all eyes are on the presidency. “I trust that you, Mr. President, will continue to pursue reforms to strengthen democratic institutions, to enhance the independence of the judiciary, to encourage political pluralism and media freedom, and the protection of fundamental freedoms,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was quoted as saying to Sarkisian in Brussels on March 12. “[In this context] the conduct of free and fair elections is of pivotal importance,” Sarkisian responded.

Giragosian remains unconvinced. “The timing of this election does offer an important opportunity for the Armenian government to overcome the legacy of mistrust and the pronounced lack of legitimacy from the post-election crisis that has hindered the Sarkisian Administration ever since it took office,” he says, “but there is serious concern as neither recent local elections nor any moves by the Armenian government have demonstrated that the government realizes that this election will be crucial.”


  1. Great analysis! I would go further and say the days of population apathy are over. The mentioned activist movements have received wide coverage and support! There no turning back as Armenians will continue to demand a rule-of-law society. This will take the form of larger protests and actual change over the next two crucial years in Armenia.

  2. Since writing the article, a survey of the pre-election environment in Armenia has been released:

    According to the survey, if the elections were held next Sunday, 27.1 percent of respondents would vote for Prosperous Armenia and 24.5 percent the Republican Party. Only 3.3 percent would vote for ARF-D, and 3.2 percent for Ter-Petrossian’s ANC.

    16.6 percent say they don’t know who’ll they’ll vote and 11.2 percent say they won’t vote at all. 6.7 percent refused to answer. Regardless, again, unless the other parties seek to engage the population and do so well, it’s still shaping up to be a battle between Prosperous Armenia and the Republicans.

    There’s also a lot of information on demographics in the survey as well as the types of issues people are concerned with, including along party lines.

  3. Mikael says:

    Dear Onnik,

    referring to sources of online newspaper the EUFOA-report is falsified. The newspaper says that the office of the EUFOA in Yerevan is financed by the Armenian authorities, which try to create the impression of an unbiased sociological analysis, since those analysists in Armenia are not trusted by the Armenian people.

    Referring to the parlamentary elections in May the official voter number recently published by the Armenian Police amounts to 2,47m while referring to the census of 2011 there are 2,87m people living in Armenia. In 2001 the numbers were approximaptely 2.28m and 3,1m respectively. The astonishing point however is that while hundreds of thousands of Armenians have left the country in the recent ten years, the number of voters however has risen about approximately 170000 people. All opposition parties (ANC, Heritage, ARF) and several NGOs are commenting on this fact that the authorities are going to falsify the upcoming elections by several hundreds of thousands votes of people who are pretended to live in Armenia while they have left the country in the past 20 years and are not aware that the ruling authorities will use their persons to vote. Should this be the case then Armenia will step into the next wave of frustration, crisis and emigration.

  4. Mikael says:

    Why has my comment been deleted?

    • Hi Mikael,
      Your comment is not deleted but all comments are moderated. We receive a great deal of spam and inappropriate comments and we would like to keep the conversation civil. Thanks for commenting and apologies if our moderation isn’t fast enough sometimes.

  5. Mikael says:

    Sorry Hrag, should have seen it. Thank you for your answer.

  6. Hi Mikael, the problem with opinion polls is that few in Armenia ever believe them if they counter their existing political hopes and positions. That said, I’ve heard similar results from other polls from reliable sources — in this case from NDI/CRRC.

    But the issue is not the results themselves, but how they are interpreted. For example, even if Prosperous Armenia and the Republican Party ‘lead’ the way, their level of support is still low in the scheme of things.

    Basically, there’s a huge number of undecided or wavering voters to address, and this strikes me as where all political forces should turn their attention to. What we can also see is that there is still a significant level of apathy in the country so reaching out to voters is important.

    This opinion was also voiced earlier this week by the U.S. Ambassador:

    U.S. Envoy Laments ‘Apathy,’ Urges More Civic Activism In Armenia

    Regarding voter lists, abuse of administrative resources, and likely fraud on election day itself, I don’t disagree, but this is up to civil society and political groups to monitor and expose, and not least because the competition between the Republicans and Prosperous Armenia arguably makes it more likely.

    Talking of monitoring, however, this might interest you… the crisis-mapping Ushahidi platform is being deployed to register electoral violations in real-time:

  7. The rivalry between Prosperous Armenia and the Republican Party also appears to be well underway already:

    Police Probe ‘Pre-Election’ Violence In Gyumri

    Armenian Coalition Parties Accused Of Vote Buying

    We can suppose that there will be more such stories as the election draws ever closer.

  8. Mikael says:

    Yes Onnik, I absolutely agree. The tensions will become stronger the closer we get to the election day.
    But still I am suspicious about the forecasts both by International and national analysts, because we have seen in the past that a vast majority of them were biased or influenced by several directions. For example the EUFOA-report forecasts only 3,4% for the oppositional ANC, whereas we have seen in the falsified presidential elections of 2008 that former president Ter-Petrosyan got officially about 20%. The official results of the (again falsified) Yerevan majoral elections were similar. The According to the EUFOA-report the heritage will not pass, what I doubt as well. But what makes me most doubtful is the forecasted percentage of the rulinh RPA. The party has not only not held what it promised in 2007 but the situation in all sectros, economy, social conditions, ecology, emigration and so on has worsened. Moreover there has been the organized March 1 killings, which hss not been cleared yet, unclearex deaths in the army and so on. How can a ruling party which not only failed in the most important sectors but which is also accountable for the worsening of the situation in the country get such a high result in the polls? In every other country such a party could not even pass the 5% hurdle to enter the parlament. That’s why several hundred thousands of passporty are being printed actually. I expect a new wave of mass demonstrationy following the elections.

  9. Mikael, I think you’re assuming that most Armenians know what we know. In reality, there’s a reason why government control is so established over the broadcast media. I’d also say that in any country even the most undemocratic of regimes have those who support them, whether rightly or wrongly, and also regardless or not of whether it’s genuine or simply expedient.

    Regarding the opposition another thing is clear. Ter-Petrossian’s movement lost considerable momentum months after the 1 March unrest and that has continued since then and become even more of an issue given disagreements within the ANC and key members actually leaving.

    A splintered opposition is also what successive governments have relied upon to make falsification easier in elections, but again I have to say that the polls we’re talking about don’t really matter that much. Interpretation does.

    And just as being against the government doesn’t mean you’re naturally for the opposition is the case in many countries, the campaign period for the parliamentary elections is going to be crucial. There are issues and there is discontent.

    So, the question is whether those two factors are going to be effectively addressed by any political force. Government forces have got to understand that vote-buying, ballot box stuffing isn’t the way anymore, and the opposition has to reach out.

    Unfortunately, however, it appears that most Armenians seem to think that presidential elections are the only ones that matter, usually ignoring local and parliamentary ones without realizing what a crucial role they play too.

    Just as you mention Ter-Petrossian’s support in 2008, for example, we can also look at Demirchian’s in 2003 and then compare that to opposition support in the 2007 parliamentary vote. That, in a sense, is the same situation they find themselves in now.

  10. First major clash between Prosperous Armenia and Republican Party reported in Masis: