Parliamentary Elections Yet Another Test for Democracy in Armenia
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.
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.
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.”