Reading List – 12th February 2021

Unfinished Business in the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

The pre-eminent western expert on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, Thomas De Waal, has written a long read analysing the challenges facing the various parties in the dispute over Nagorno Karabakh. He makes it clear that the peace accord signed in haste in November leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

Elections Ahead

András Tóth-Czifra looks at the Russian Duma elections due to be held in September. Alexey Navalny’s ‘smart voting’ scheme is dividing the parties and also sets challenges for the Kremlin. Whilst the leaderships of the various systemic opposition parties have denounced Navalny, many of their supporters see smart voting as a means to benefit in the forthcoming polls. 

Overturning Trump’s Facebook ban would set a dangerous precedent

Steve Feldstein looks at the challenge in front of Facebook’s Oversight Board as they decide whether the former President should be allowed back onto the platform. Feldstein is clear that he thinks the ban should continue as he weighs up the various international standards on free speech and incitement. Whilst he only looks at this from the point of view of Trump’s Facebook ban, the decision mirrors that which (at least in theory) should be in the minds of US senators hearing the impeachment trial. 

End of Myanmar’s Rocky Road to Democracy?

Sana Jaffrey gives a brief but pretty comprehensive run through of the recent history of Myanmar and the likely effects of the military coup there. 

America Is Back. Europe, Are You There?

Daniel Baer, in Foreign Policy Magazine, suggests that Europe has acted precipitously to seek to gain an advantage before President Joe Biden’s feet are properly under the Resolute Desk. And whilst America needs to recognise its own failings, the EU has damaged its standing with what he calls ‘childish actions’. 

Rising EU-Russia tensions are good news for Ukraine

On much the same subject, Oleksiy Goncharenko suggests that the failure of the EU mission’s recent talks with Russia led by Josep Borrell could be good for Ukraine. 

Why the Belarusian Revolution Has Stalled

Finally (sorry for the long list today) Ryhor Astapenia of Chatham House examines three reasons why he believes the Belarusian revolution has apprently come to a halt. He suggests that Lukashenka has kept the rulling classes largely behind him, that the opposition has failed to break out of its ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ base, and that international actors are concerned about what might replace the current president if he is forced out.

Reading List – 4th February 2021

A fortnight that shook Russia … and what next

Nigel Gould-Davies assesses the Navalny case – from his dramatic return to Russia to his arrest and improsonment. Why does this somewhat detached figure who has no vast army of support in the country scare the authorities so?

Global democracy has a very bad year

The Economist publishes their annual survey of the world’s democracies

Why supporting resilient political systems is key to a successful Biden democracy agenda

Patrick Quirk explores how the new US President might make his promotion of democracy into a meaningful foreign policy.

Perspectives | What the Second Karabakh War tells us about the liberal international order

Reviewing the Second Karabakh War, Kevork Oskanian suggests that the breakdown in the liberal international order is apparent in the way that the conflict was resolved and sets massive challenges for those who might want to see the Trump administration as a mere blip.

The Future of Democracy and State Building in Postconflict Armenia

Laure Delcour argues that the EU has lot a lot of ground in its relationship with Armenia and that the country’s pro-democracy reforms since 2018 may now slip backwards

The myriad of ways in which post-Soviet democracies choose to break down

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Elections are fundamental to democracy, but elections are merely one pillar supporting a democratic system and there are growing numbers of countries where that pillar is crumbling.

The last decade in Europe and the US has shaken our faith in democracy. The US is no longer the archetype that others aspire to. Its electoral system, many features of which were exported around the world, have proved to be quite dysfunctional and manipulable. And while much of Europe still maintains strong elections which accurately reflect the views of the voters who participate, there are also countries where this is no longer always the case.

Elections by themselves are not enough to maintain a healthy democracy. They may increase accountability and inspire citizens, but they may also lead to nationalist hysteria, the oppression of minorities and can legitimise dictators. In post-Soviet Eurasia, many elections have had a negative effect on democratic progression and the events in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus in recent weeks have shown that change comes not necessarily from elections but from protests or rejection of elections.

International organisations in the West have focussed on elections as the lynchpin of successful democracy. Samuel Huntington’s two turnover test – two changes of power as a result of elections – is just one example of the western fixation on elections as central to democratic success.

But electoral fundamentalism, as David van Reybrouck calls it, is a gross simplification of how democracies function and survive. 

On a practical level, Paddy Ashdown thought similarly. When he became the High Representative for Bosnia Herzegovina he criticised the idea that elections were enough to bring peace and democracy to that country. He pointed out that the rule of law was vital and his efforts were in combatting corruption as a precondition to engendering citizen confidence in the system.

In the post-Soviet world there are a number of examples of what might happen. But as Tolstoy suggested, there is no single model for how democracy breaks down. Whilst we may think of the space as being solely led by authoritarian regimes, this is not the case and it is not possible to read across from one to another except to understand that our focus should be wider than simply counting ballot papers.

Belarus is perhaps the closest to the perceived authoritarian model. A leader who has been in power for many years – in this case having won in a genuinely competitive contest in the first place – dictates the desired result before election day. The state then makes his wishes come true.  In that case there was, for the first time, a sea change in public mood that has resulted in many weeks of street protests. Rather than a rise in pro-Western or anti-Russian feeling as some would have it, this may be a case where citizens see the types of democratic freedoms across their borders with Lithuania and Poland and desire some of that progress for themselves. In this case it is geography that may set them apart from, say, Tajikistan where a very similar result was declared in similar circumstances, but without any apparent public objection. So whilst the incumbent attempts to portray his rivals as stooges of the West, the protests continue to be successful precisely because they are homegrown and not dependent on American (or Polish, or German) money or influence.

Whilst Belarus looks to be a long and drawn-out battle, some recent elections have been set aside with remarkable swiftness. Kyrgyzstan has been referred to on many occasions as an island of democracy in a sea of central asian authoritarianism. The truth is that this is another country where electoral practices are a veneer over a deeply flawed democracy. The different parties there are not ideologically based but instead founded on clans and regional identity. Elections have long been a battle between the north and the south with most electors controlled either by clan loyalty or by payment. Even after a peaceful handover of power in 2017, the new President chose to imprison his predecessor rather than risk him trying to control the country from behind the scenes.

After last month’s parliamentary elections produced a deeply unconvincing result with just four parties declared to have met the 7% threshold, the public took to the streets. This was the third such revolution in two decades and Kyrgyz people are so used to rioting that there are established civilian groups that coalesce to protect property and businesses. In double quick time President Jeenbekov acknowledged the result was flawed and promised fresh elections. But this was not enough for the mob who demanded, and got, his resignation. The presidency, prime ministership and parliament itself is now in the hands of a nationalist politician who was elected to none of these roles and fresh elections are due next year. The EU has rung the alarm bells at this change and has stated that Jeenbekov is the only legitimate leader in the country until such time as new elections are held. But whilst these might result in additional parties being elected to Parliament and a formal change in President, it is unlikely that the institutions will be more firmly grounded. A fourth revolt is only a matter of time.

In Kyrgyzstan, as with any other country in the region, the role of Russia is a constant question. Russia has a lot on its plate at the moment with Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Belarus and Ukraine. The Kremlin does not appear to be paying much attention to Bishkek, mostly because they know there is little they can do, but also because there are none of the potential leaders who scare them. There is no move to unite with the West, with China or with any other strategic opponent. And Russia has proved able to squash every attempt so far among the central Asian states to co-operate more closely in their economies – the issue that concerns Moscow the most. These efforts are being led by the leaders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan but are routinely dampened down by Russia which wants its Eurasian Economic Union to be the only game in town.

Other countries – outside the former Soviet world – give greater hope that constitutionality and the rule of law can win through. In both Malawi and Kenya, deeply troubled elections have been declared void by constitutional courts and re-runs have ben ordered. But these results have only been possible thanks to strong and independent judges, something that is very rare in even the best of the former CIS countries.

Armenia and Azerbaijan and countries which are very different politically. Azerbaijan has modelled itself closely on the authoritarian model with an unwritten deal that promises economic prosperity and good living conditions in return for a loss of political and electoral rights. This trade, however, relies on the continued prosperity bought by petro-chemical resources and the gas price crash and general economic slowdown brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic may start to induce tensions.

In contrast, Armenia has long practised the concept of seemingly competitive elections and changes of power. But at crucial moments the country has had to rely on street protest and revolution to change course.

In both cases, a fundamental flaw has become the absolutist nature of policy over the disputed territory of Karabakh, or Artsakh to the Armenians. During Soviet times this island of mainly Armenian inhabitants surrounded by the Azeri SSR was not a major issue. But since independence in 1991 there has been an almost constant conflict and the current battles demonstrate that it shows no sign of abating. This is not a frozen conflict but the positions of each combatant have atrophied to the extent that no person can come to power in Armenia unless they promise that Artsakh is and will always remain Armenian. And whilst an authoritarian ruler is not so hidebound to electoral promises, the Azeri position has become a lot stronger in recent years as they have developed their military with modern weapons including drones and now have the overt support of Turkey as that country seeks to demonstrate its aspirations to become a regional power. If parties come to power time and again promising the impossible then this weakens faith in the electoral process.

Three elections are imminent in the post-Soviet world and each presents a different case to show how democracy is weak when it relies simply on elections.

In Ukraine, contests are taking place to choose mayors and local authorities. These polls follow the overwhelming victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in the presidential election last year and his party, Servant of the People, in the parliamentary vote which followed soon after.

A novice politician, Zelensky has seen that in a country which has stronger democratic institutions than many, it is not possible to rule by presidential fiat. He has not been able to magic a solution to the Donbas or Crimean occupations, nor to solve the economic woes of the country. Frequent changes in government ministers do not help and, whilst his predecessors would marvel at his opinion poll ratings, these have been going steadily down as it becomes clear that likeability is not the same as administrative competence. In this case public confidence is not just waning in the individual, but also in the hope that a genuine change in the political system was in the offing. 

It is perhaps not too late to turn the situation around, but to do so probably relies on correcting the major failing in Ukraine which is the oligarchical system. With so many industrial leaders behind, and sometimes in front of, the scenes, the public realise that their elected leaders are not answerable to them but to the paymasters who control the media and jobs.

When it comes to local and municipal elections the system fails further. Most incumbent mayors do not align themselves with national parties but have their own local groupings. These groupings then control the allocation of municipal jobs and contracts. The national parties may divide the seats on local councils between them, but the power lies with mayors who are not answerable to anyone other than their oligarchic paymasters.

Moldova is another country where oligarchs have run riot, but the prominence of Vlad Plahotniuc and Ilan Shor does not tell the whole story as they control only one of three factions within political life. The second is the pro-Russian Socialist Party of incumbent President Igor Dodon and the third is the technocrat pro-western party led by Maia Sandu. Each of these groupings has at times aligned with another in an attempt to eliminate the third. The oligarchs were exiled for a while but then allied with Dodon to oust the government of Sandu before it could implement real change. Now it seems the oligarchs are backing Sandu as the best chance to knock Dodon off his perch – but at what price? In all of this, voters will continue to choose between contestants but their wishes only hold sway on a temporary basis as the real battles continue to take place behind closed doors. All the while the economy falls further and a portion of the country remains under effective Russian control.

In Georgia, elections exemplify a misplaced faith in parties as instruments of accountability and promoters of diffusion of power. Since 1991, some elections in Georgia have been genuine expressions of voter will, but most have solidified the parties in power and cemented the privileges of Georgia’s ruling political circles.

This is another country where street protests have borne fruit. In this case it is the opening up of the electoral system such that opposition parties are now more likely to gain representation. It is not quite the ‘everyone must have prizes’ system of the 1992-95 parliament when 26 parties were represented, but nonetheless the reduction to just 30 majoritarian seats (out of 150) and the lowering of the threshold to 1% represents a substantial change. In addition, the requirement that one in four list candidates must be a woman should ensure that female representation rises from the present, pitiful, nine, although there is no equivalent quota for national minorities. 

All these are important concessions from the ruling Georgian Dream grouping and they are a recognition of the need for compromise. Most importantly no one knows what the outcome will be – or at least whether Georgian Dream will win an overall majority. Uncertainty about the results is always a good sign. An NDI poll in the summer suggested an 88% turnout although 59% still didn’t know who they are voting for. Most voters will now have made up their mind, but the absence of constant polling – as in the US – means that the public, and parties, will enter election day uncertain as to the outcome.

For elections to work as instruments of greater accountability, they have to be competitive, definitive and enjoy voter confidence, with accessible information on party policies and the differences between them and they have to lead to visible outcomes. One would also hope the elections would promote a degree of social integration rather than fragmentation. But despite the signing by over 40 Georgian parties of a code of conduct on September 12, there is little evidence of electoral features which will lead to a more qualitative democracy. 

Most seriously, elected representatives should govern because they have been given the power to do so by electors. But in Georgia they will not due to Inashvili’s overwhelming economic and political influence. This is the greatest challenge in Georgia right now.

The increased party list system helps opposition parties but it also helps solidify the powers of party leaders who control the lists and reduces the accountability of MPs to constituents. The elections are competitive, but how fair will they be. Georgian Dream has overwhelming financial resources and the apparatus of the state, particularly in the regions where the election process is opaque and GD has significant control over local government and over who gets appointed to the precinct electoral commissions. Polls suggest voter confidence in political parties and knowledge of what the parties are offering is very low. This is because parties have no staying power and appear and disappear frequently. There are a raft of new parties in this election, as in almost every election since 1991. But most parties – old and new – represent a clique or are crafted in the image of a strongman. Very few represent a coherent ideology. 

What is perhaps more worrying is that every election since 1991 has operated under different rules. This suggests a persistent disconnect between the population and the politicians. If every parliament so fails to reflect the will of the voters that the system needs to be changed then perhaps it is not the voting system that is failing. It is good that public pressure can bring political change, but in a democracy that should be through the ballot box rather than protests on the streets. 

For these reasons the 2020 election is unlikely to foster greater democracy or accountability. If these elections once again fail to produce a positive outcome such as better prosperity or increased accountability then they will chip further away at Georgian peoples’ faith in democracy.

All of this gloom and doom is not to suggest for a minute that elections and a wider democratic model should not be the aspiration of each country and should not be promoted by those in a position to influence things. There are signs of progress, albeit very slight. That Uzbekistan wants to eliminate polling day fraud and the ruling party in Kazakhstan is choosing its candidates through primaries are to be welcomed, even if they are comparatively tiny steps forward in countries which remain deeply undemocratic.

The UK Government is set to announce its strategic foreign and defence policy review next month and a focus on promoting democracy, the rule of law and human rights must surely be front and centre. Equally, the election in the United States may well produce the return of an administration which values multi-lateral institutions and looks to promote its values more actively. Both Germany and France remain active in promoting liberal internationalism around the world, but the EU also needs to look close to home as both Poland and Hungary continue to present worrying evidence of democratic backsliding.

Reading List – 8th October 2020

Russia and Europe: Stuck on Autopilot

This is a long read which looks at Russia’s relationships with three key European players – Germany, France and the UK. Andrew Weiss of Carnegie argues that at a time when Russia could be exploiting EU and NATO weaknesses to subtly further its foreign policy ambitions, it is acting too bluntly. 

Germany has traditionally separated business ties from politics, but there are strong calls for the Nord-Stream 2 project to be cancelled or put on hold. Whilst these are being resisted by Chancellor Merkel and her likely successors, there is clearly a block to any new ventures.

President Macron has continued the French tradition of seeking closer ties with Russia, partly as a demonstration of an alternative view of Europe that does not rely on the USA. Russia has proved less responsive however and continues to undertake projects in Francophone Africa which the Elysee Palace views as treading on its toes. If Russia can have a sphere of influence then whay cannot France?

As for the UK, Russian money is deeply embedded here and the ISC report showed just how close the Conservative party and Kremlin have become. But activities such as the Skripal poisoning led to the UK co-ordinating a global response which Russia did not predict.

Europe’s Longest-Running Conflict Can’t Be Ignored

Another piece about the Armenia/Azerbaijan conflict, this time from Thomas de Waal of Carnegie. Her argues that the conflict cannot be ignored and can only be resolved with Russian assistance. 

The Foreign Secretary’s Evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee: 10 Things We Learned

Sophia Gaston, the director of the British Foreign Policy Group, looks at Dominic Raab’s evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee for clues as to the outcome of the Government’s strategic foreign policy review.

There appears to be a very nuanced stance on China with a desire to keep them in the room and talking whilst also making sure they cannot dominate multilateral institutions while America is focussed elsewhere. There is even talk of a boycott of the forthcoming Beijing Winter Olympics.

However it seems the UK will continue to press the idea of being a champion of democracy and human rights whilst maintianing strong ties to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes.

As far as Russia is concerned, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of new policy around the corner. Perhaps sensing that strong action to counter corrupt money housed in London would simply highlight the claims made in the ISC report, Raab downplayed the issue, although he did raise the possibility of Magnitsky type action in the future.

The Challenge of Observing American Democracy

This is a great read for those of us interested or involved in the election observation business.

Reading List Special – The Armenia/Azerbaijan conflict 2nd October 2020

Three links today which all explore issues surrounding the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Is Peace Possible Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

The first comes from Carnegie Europe and brings together a wide range of expert views on the conflict and when/whether it will be peacefully resolved. There are some views which appear more pessimistic and some which are pure pie in the sky – you can judge for yourself which might be which.

Turkey backs Azerbaijan in war with Armenia as Russia stands by

AL-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman takes the general view that Russia is letting this conflict play out for a while so that both sides are exhausted and to show that the Minsk Format is ineffective. By then stepping in and determining a ceasefire (if not peace), Russia will reassert its regional dominance.

No peacemakers for the new/old Caucasian war

On the other hand Pavel Baev for Brookings suggests that Russia was largely caught out by the conflict flaring up at this time as its attention was focussed on Belarus.

A few hot (bad) takes from me:

  • The US is distracted and showing once again that it does not have the will or capacity to be the world leader as it once did. This can change, of course, but shows no signs of doing so at the moment.
  • Turkey’s overt intervention on the side of Azerbaijan is new and one further example of Erdogan’s desire to be a regional power (or more). Whilst Russia might be prepared to tolerate Turkish actions in Syria and Libya, will they be happy that this is also happening in their own backyard, the ‘near abroad’?
  • Armenia is Russia’s most dependable ally. So why has the Kremlin not immediately come down on the side of Yerevan? Partly, I suspect, because they want to chastise Pashinyan for using the ‘my big brother is going to beat you up’ threat.
  • The Minsk process is at risk of failing completely. The three co-chairs are Russia, France and the US. Of these, only France seems to be fulfilling its remit at the moment – without great success. Minsk is a subsidiary of OSCE which has been bogged down with internal arguments largely started by Azerbaijan and Turkey.
  • Diplomatic calls for both sides to stand down and negotiate are the equivalent of ‘thoughts and prayers’.

Turkmenistan and Armenia plan constitutional changes

Two former Soviet states are planning to amend their constitutions according to media reports. Although one change is likely to be much more significant than the other.

In Armenia the headline proposal would see the voting age lowered to 16. But the raft of changes are much wider than this. The so-called ‘stable majority’ system also looks set to be scrapped.

The voting age proposal currently has three options. One would be to retain the current age of 18. A second would see a reduction to either 16 or 17 for all elections. The third would allow the Parliament to decide the age for any given election. This last seems relatively chaotic as parliamentarians might seek to gain political advantage from their choice and young voters themselves would not know where they stood until weeks before a poll was due.

The stable majority system works like this: if no party or bloc emerges from an election with more than half the seats then a second round will be held between the top two parties or blocs. The winner will get enough additional seats to take them to 54% of the total number of seats. At the same time, if a single party or bloc wins more than two thirds of the seats then additional seats are created to give the opposition parties at least one third of all seats.

A useful take on the proposals can be found on the EPDE website here.

The relatively ceremonial modification comes from Turkmenistan where the creation of a Senate to replace the Khalk Maslahaty (or People’s Council) will be watched most to see who becomes the Chair of the new body and therefore likely next in line should President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov die suddenly. The chances are that this role will be taken by his son Serdar.

The replacement of the Khalk Maslahaty by a Senate of 56 members might seem like a step towards better democracy. But not all of the new Senators will be elected (eight will be appointed by the President) and elections in Turkmenistan have never really been that genuine. Adding a second chamber to the existing rubber-stamp Parliament is not going to make much difference.

Contours of Conflict and Prognosis in the Eastern Neighbourhood by James Nixey, Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

James Nixey, the head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, has written a paper on the so-called frozen conflicts in Eastern Europe – Nagorno Karabakh, Transnistria, Georgia and Ukraine – and what the west might do to edge towards resolutions.

His central tenet is that Russia bears a large responsibility for the conflicts and, together with the actors themselves, must take the lead in resolutions. But, he argues, the west should be taking actions including expelling recalcitrant states from membership of various bodies as well as seeking to inspire solutions. He concludes:

The best the West can do in the meantime is to stop over promising and under-delivering (and ideally do the reverse)

I’m not sure I agree completely with James’ suggestions. For instance I think expelling countries from organisations might be to final a move. But it is worthy of a read for anyone interested in the on-going conflicts.

Massive swing in Armenian elections sees ruling party swept from power


A poster at an Armenian polling station urges voters not to sell their vote ‘for her future’

The major takeaway from the Armenian general election is the sheer dominance of the My Step Alliance of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The group won just over 70% of the votes cast albeit on a turnout of only 48.6% – some 12% down on the last election.

The voting system is a national list with half the seats allocated according to preferences cast in the 13 regions. The results are as follows (1):

My Step Alliance 884,456 70.43%

Prosperous Armenia 103,824 8.27%

Bright Armenia 80,024 6.37%

Republican Party of Armenia 59,059 4.70%

Armenian Revolutionary Federation 48,811 3.89%

We Alliance 25,174 2.00%

Sasna Tsrer 22,862 1.82%

Rule of Law 12,389 0.99%

Citizen’s Decision 8,530 0.68%

Christian Democratic Rebirth Party 6,456 0.51%

National Progress Party 4,122 0.33%

Invalid Votes 5,133

Total 1,260,840

Various peculiarities of the voting system and electoral law apply to thisArmenia 7 result. Firstly, there is a 5% threshold applied to individual parties and a 7% threshold for alliances. But the Armenian electoral code requires that at least three factions are represented in Parliament. If the result does not provide for this then the threshold will be lowered until three factions qualify. In this case three factions will be represented and so the threshold will apply.

Second, the code requires that a faction that wins more than 50% of the votes cast shall receive a working majority in the Parliament (defined as 54% of MPs). That is clearly the case for My Step Alliance here.

Conversely, the code also limits the parliamentary majority that a single faction may enjoy. No group may have more than two thirds of the MPs. Stripping out the parties which failed to pass the threshold, the raw votes would have entitled My Step Alliance to 84 seats, Prosperous Armenia to 10 seats and Bright Armenia to 7 seats in the 101 seat Parliament. In order to ensure a working opposition, the code requires that additional mandates are created for the opposition to limit the governing party to the two-thirds threshold. Thus My Step Alliance will hold 88 seats, Prosperous Armenia 26 and Bright Armenia 18 in a Parliament of 132. Four seats are reserved for national minorities and, of these, My Step Alliance won 3 and Prosperous Armenia 1. (2)

Armenia 11I wrote about the background to the election here. It followed a largely peaceful revolution in April this year which saw the Republican Party of Armenia lose power and Nikol Pashinyan become Prime Minister. The RPA remained the dominant faction in Parliament, however, with 58 seats. Following these elections, they will have no MPs at all.

The small number of invalid ballots can mainly be explained by the voting system used. Each voter is given an envelope and 11 ballot papers, each representing an individual party. They choose their preferred party and insert that ballot paper in the envelope. The corner of the envelope has been removed to expose a small section of the ballot paper to which a validating sticker is attached before the vote is cast. Thus, if an envelope contains more than one ballot paper then only the one with the sticker attached is deemed valid and an envelope with no ballot paper will have no sticker and will be ignored rather than considered blank or invalid. Invalid votes will be those which have been written on – a comparatively rare event.

The OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission covering these elections produced a broadly positive report on the proceedings, although identified some remaining shortcomings in the areas of campaign finance, the legal system, transparency and gender representation.

The future for Pashinyan’s government will be challenging. Whilst critics from within the Republican Party (not surprisingly) dismiss the new rulers as populists who will ruin their works, the public view of the Republican Party is at an all time low. Other critics, however, point out the lack of governmental experience.

One of Pashinyan’s early moves was an overture towards Turkey. The two countries have had a glacial relationship over the issue of the Armenian genocide. However the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported the comments by the new Prime Minister word for word and this will be taken as a positive response.

Another large neighbour – Russia – fired a shot across the bows of Pashinyan in the form of an article in Sputnik News claiming to raise issues about the past history of government members. Russia has a large military base just outside the Armenian second city of Gyumri and, whilst Pashinyan has made no comments which would seem to threaten the future of that base, he does appear willing to upset the status quo in many respects. Laurence Broers of Chatham House has said Armenia is set for future political change in overturning former semi-authoritarian and oligarchic regimes.

“How to do that while maintaining the close alliance with Russia will test the Armenian-Russian relationship severely. But any dismantling of Armenia’s oligarchic ties in many major sectors of the economy, including energy and transport, will inevitably bring Pashinyan into conflict with their deep penetration by Russian state and commercial actors, and their local Armenian clients.”

  1. These totals have now been confirmed by Territorial Electoral Commissions and the Central Election Commission but may be subject to court challenges.
  2. This section has been updated with the correct number of seats awarded rather than estimates

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.


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.


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.


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.