Armenian Parliamentary Election preview

Snap parliamentary elections will be held in Armenia on December 9th. These will be the first polls since the (largely peaceful) revolution in April and May this year which brought Nikol Pahinyan to power in place of the long-time ruling Republican Party.

Early elections were widely ainticipated as the Way Out Alliance headed by Pahinyan has a commanding lead in the polls and recently won overwhelming support in the Yerevan municipal elections. However, the decision to hold the elections in December, rather than next spring or summer, has angered the former ruling party which prevented the passing of a new electoral code.

Overview

Armenia is a parliamentary democracy in the caucasus region. The country borders Turkey to the West, Georgia to the North, Iran to the South and Azerbaijan to the East. There has been a historic feud with Turkey following the genocide of 1916-18 which is still widely commemorated in Armenia. And since independence in 1991 there has been a conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno Karabakh region. This is one of a number of ‘frozen conflicts’ in the former Soviet Union (Transnistria in Moldova is another) and both countries deploy many thousands of soldiers along their frontiers.

Before 2015, the country was a semi-presidential republic. But following a constitutional change the President is now a figurehead position elected by the Parliament for a single 7 year term. The 2015 contitutional changes also reduced the nominal number of seats in parliament from 131 to 101 and replaced the additional member system of election with a mixed list (see below). Many commentators saw the change as a means to allow Serzh Sargsyan to continue to hold power as Prime Minister once he finished his second Presidential term in 2018.

The last election received a mixed report from OSCE/ODIHR. The organisation said that: 

“the April 2 parliamentary elections were well-administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected. Despite welcomed reforms of the legal framework and the introduction of new technologies to reduce incidents of electoral irregularities, the elections were tainted by credible information about vote-buying, and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies. This contributed to an overall lack of public confidence and trust in the elections. Election day was generally calm and peaceful but marked by organizational problems and undue interference in the process, mostly by party representatives.”

Domestic observers the Independent Observers Alliance said:

“the election campaign was accompanied by violence and pressure, including the use of firearms, mostly against the candidates and supporters of the non-ruling and opposition parties and blocs. The IOA also concluded that the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) carried out organized and widespread abuse of administrative resources and that the CEC (Central Election Commission) did not carry out a thorough and comprehensive examination of the issues raised in the petitions addressed to it.”

The Velvet Revolution

At the end of March 2018, Nikol Pashinyan, the leader of Civic Contract and supporters began a march from the second city of Gyumri to Yerevan. They were seekign to persuade Serzh Sargsyan not to seek what they described as a ‘third term’ by becoming Prime Minister. In mid-April Pashinyan announced the start of what he called a ‘Velvet Revolution’, a national non-violent protest outside the Parliament. Pashinyan and others were arrested the next week and thos led to mass strikes and protests including by soldiers. Sargsyan resigned on April 23rd without bloodshed.

Practicalities

The 101 members of the Parliament are elected by a mixed PR system. Voters are given a ballot paper with two sections. The top half is a closed national party list. The lower portion allows voters to choose from an open party list featuring candidates put forward by the parties in their area. There are 13 such areas or constituencies across the country. Seats are allocated to parties based on their national share of the vote (the top half of the ballot paper). Half of a party’s seats are allocated to the national list candidates and half to the candidates who received the most votes in the constituency sections. Four seats are reserved for national minorities – Kurds, Yazidis, Russians and Assyrians and parties prepare separate lists for these four groups.

At least 25% of all candidates put forward by a party on their lists must be of each gender (in practice this ensures 25% female representation on the lists) and the national list cannot include more than three consecutive names of the same gender. In practice this means that every fourth name is a woman in this largely male-dominated society. As a consequence, the current parliament is composed of 15% female MPs.

Video cameras are installed in virtually all polling stations in the country and footage can be viewed in real time online. Cameras are also kept running during counting (which takes place in polling stations). These cameras were paid for by the EU, as was voter identification machinery.

The threshold for election is 5% for single parties and 7% for electoral alliances.

A unique quirk of the Armenian system is that a party that wins more thyan half the votes will be given a working majority in parliament. This is defined as 54% of the seats. And so a party that wins more than 50% of the vote but does not win 54% of the seats will be given extra seats (created in addition to the 101 regular seats). Alongside this, no party can dominate a parliament. And so if a party or electoral alliance wins more than two thirds of the seats then the opposition parties will be given additional seats (created on top of the 101 regular seats) to reduce the winning party’s share to two thirds. Finally, at least three electoral forces (parties or alliances) must be represented in the Parliament. So even if the third force doesn’t win enough votes to reach the threshold, it will be given seats in the Parliament.

After the election, parties have six days to form a government. If this doesn’t happen then a run-off is held between the top two parties and additional seats are created and allocated to bring the winning party up to 54% of the total parliament. Seats won in the first round are not affected.

Before the current parliament was dissolved, the new government sought to change various aspects of the electoral code. They sought to lower the threshold to 4% for parties and 6% for alliances, require a minimum of four electoral forces in the Parliament, abolish the open list section of the ballot paper (leaving just the national closed party lists), require TV debates and raise the threshold for women from 25% to 30%. In essence, these changes would have benefited smaller parties and coalitions. Although twice brought to a vote, the bill failed both times because the Republican Party withdrew its MPs meaning that there were not sufficient elected members present to form a quorum.

Parties and Alliances

The deadline for parties to register for these elections was the 14th November and eleven parties and alliances filed papers to compete.

Republican Party of Armenia

The Republican Party is the largest of the right-wing parties and lacks a real ethos other than consolidating and holding on to power. Affiliated to it are many of the country’s oligarchs and there have been numerous accusations of corruption leveled at its members. The RPA won most seats in all elections held between 1995 and 2017 with shares of the vote ranging from 23.7 to 49.2 in the latest contest. The party won Presidential elections in 2003, 2008 and 2013. The Party is led by former Defense Minister Vigen Sargsian. Serzh Sargsyan, the former Prime Minister and President of Armenia, is not among the list of candidates for the partyn and apparently will play no role in the campaign. 

My Step Alliance – Civic Contract and Mission Party

Civic Contract is a pro-European, liberal and nationalist party led by the outgoing Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. It participated in the last elections as part of the Way Out Alliance (YELQ) which secured 9 seats overall with Civic Contract taking 5 of these.

The Mission Party is a small liberal pro-European party led by Manuk Sukiasyan. They currently hold one seat in the Parliament after the 2017 elections which they fought as part of the Tsurakyan Alliance.

Armenian Revolutionary Party

Also known as Dashnak, the ARF was founded in 1890 and mainly operated with the Armenian diaspora around the world. Since independence it has also operated in Armenia as a small party and has been a part of the governing coalition. ARF is a democratic socialist party and is led by Hrant Markarian. It currently holds 7 members of the Parliament.

Bright Armenia

Bright Armenia is a small party currently holding 2 of the 101 seats in the Armenian Parliament. In the last elections in 2017, the party was part of the Way Out Alliance (known as YELQ) which won 9 seats in total. The party is led by Edmon Marukyan.

We Alliance – Free Democrats and Hanrepetutyun Party

The Free Democrats are a small liberal party formed in 2011 and led by Khachatur Kokobelyan. In 2017 they failed to meet the threshold to win seats in the Parliament. The other notable name involved with the party is former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratyan.

The Hanrepetutyun Party is a small centrist party formed in 2001 which fought the last elections as part of the Way Out Alliance (YELQ) securing one member of Parliament. After the revolutionm in April 2018, the YELQ alliance was dismantled and the Hanrepetutyun Party formed an alliance with Bright Armenia to fight the Yerevan city council elections. It is fighting these elections as part of the We Alliance. The party is led by Aram Sargsyan.

Country of Legality

Orinats Yerkir (also known as Country of Legality) is a centre right party which does not currently hold any seats in Parliament. Previously the party held 19 seats after the 2003 elections and 9 following the 2007 polls. The party is led by Artur Baghdasaryan.

Prosperous Armenia

Prosperous Armenia is the party of former President Robert Kocharyan and was founded on 2004. It hs been the main opposition to the RPA for many years and won 15% of the vote in 2007, 30% of the vote in 2012 and 27% of the vote in 2017. It is a pro-Russian centre right party which believes in economic liberalism and social conservatism. It is currently led by Gagik Tsarukyan.

Sasna Tsrer

Sasna Tsrer is a hardline nationalist party set up following the spring revolution in Armenia. They call for the unification of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) with Armenia and the ‘liberation of Armenia from Russian colonial rule’. They advocate closer co-operation with the USA and EU.

There are also three new parties about which I can find almost no reliable information:

Christian Democratic Rebirth Party

Citizen’s Decision

National Progress Party

In addition, at least thirteen parties have refused to register or participate in the elections although many of these are de facto non-existent and none have a presence in the out-going parliament.

Campaigning

The campaign officially runs until the 7th December with the 8th a day of electoral silence. During the 2017 elections (when I as an election observer on behalf of OSCE/ODIHR) the leading parties refused to participate in TV debates and refused even to allow senior figures to be interviewed by independent journalists. By and large, the public got their information from party propoganda videos, alongside the usual campaign leaflets and posters.

The Republican Party has declared as its aim to finish second in the election as it claims to be the sole opposition force in the country. Allies of the Prime Minister have said they doubt whether the RPA can win any seats in the country.

RFE/RL have a report on the upcoming election here.

It is difficult to predict what might happen in this election. Will voters desert the RPA and is the new Prime Minister and his My Step Alliance really as popular as the Yerevan municipal elections would seem to imply? If they are then we might actually see the first use of the two thirds rule. The statement by allies of the PM that the RPA may well not win any seats could be troubling. It may be that their previous victories were achieved on the basis of fraud, but if the new government seeks to make their statement a reality by fixing the elections against RPA then that would be a worrying development.

You can read a good analysis of the 2017 election by the German Green Foundation here.

The final report of the OSCE/ODIHR mission is here.