Difficult Choices for a Recovering Armenia

Posted on May. 26. 2021

BY STEPAN PILIGIAN | The Armenian Weekly

It is a significant understatement to say that it has been a trying year for the Republic of Armenia. The Velvet Revolution came to a crashing and somewhat cynical halt as Armenia and its diaspora absorbed the crushing losses from the 44-day war and its worst political crisis in decades. No need to repeat the painful details. What matters is that the electorate in Armenia and its supporting cast in the diaspora agree that the future of Armenia is at stake. This is not campaign rhetoric. The Turkish alliance is intoxicated with aggression created by its criminal gains in late 2020 and the resulting political chaos in Armenia. With Azeri jackals violating the doorstep of sovereign territory in Syunik and an awkward dependence on power/peace broker Russia, Armenia’s short term priority is stability: economically and politically.

After weeks of political wrangling, an “agreement” was reached to hold snap parliamentary elections on June 20 that will determine the future leadership of the country. Armenia is currently in “caretaker” mode as the Constitution prescribes to prepare for the national elections. Parliament, controlled by Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance, orchestrated the required two attempts to elect a PM that led to the caretaker government (until the elections in June) and its subsequent dissolution. It is important to recognize that in parallel with this crisis, the National Assembly also pushed through a major change to the electoral code. Members of parliament will be elected in a rank order from a closed party/alliance list or what is called a full proportional system. This is in contrast to the prior system where MPs were chosen by an equal distribution of national party and individual lists in the regions. Opposition leaders claim that this change may give the My Step alliance an advantage since they currently control a majority in the parliament and have suffered only a few defections during the current crisis. Armenia only has a few political factions beyond the majority My Step Alliance that are represented in parliament. They are the opposition Bright Armenia and Prosperous Armenia parties. Many of the parties and alliances seeking office in the June elections currently do not hold mandates. The vast majority of the 17 opposition groups that have led much of the opposition to Pashinyan since the second Artsakh War do not currently hold seats in Parliament. 

Armenian politics are usually dominated by personalities, but it takes organization and infrastructure to campaign and win seats in the snap elections. The major objection to the code change seems to be the timing of the changes (three months before the election) rather than the content. The intent should be to encourage broader participation and accelerate a maturation of the political system. Changes in the election threshold will not come into effect until 2022 so the five percent threshold for parties and seven percent for alliances of two parties or more will remain.

Another change of interest that came into effect earlier this year is that the party/alliance rank order lists must be composed of one-third women candidates versus the previous one out of four requirement. Gender balance is an important opportunity for Armenia’s political system, and change like this will only accelerate opportunities. Polls and demographic data reflect the enormous capability of Armenian women in nearly all professional fields including government, yet they are significantly underrepresented across the board. The full participation of women in all areas of influence is a matter of human rights and can significantly benefit Armenia. These changes have been informally and formally debated for a few years, but their timing may be of significance for the June elections.

Unlike America where political figures can dominate the scene for a relatively short time, national politicians in Armenia have a seemingly endless lifespan. This year’s election reflects that observation. It is literally an Armenian version of “Back to the Future” with several long standing personalities leading their parties. Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party will run alone, breaking the My Step Alliance with the much smaller Mission Party. Robert Kocharyan will lead the new Armenia Electoral Alliance with the ARF and the smaller Armenia Resurgent Party. Artur Vanetsyan will head an alliance between his Homeland Party and the Republican Party (former President Sargsyan). Gagik Tsarukyan’s Prosperous Armenia Party will participate alone. Edmon Marukyan’s Bright Armenia Party will participate alone. If that didn’t offer enough diversity, former President Levon Ter Petrosyan, who attempted an alliance with other former presidents that was rebuffed, is participating with his Armenian National Congress. Participants have until May 26 to submit registration paperwork so there is still time for other alliances to emerge.

Pictured clockwise: Robert Kocharyan, Nikol Pashinyan, Gagik Tsarukyan, Levon Ter Petrosyan, Edmon Marukyan, Artur Vanetsyan

One of the provisions in the electoral process in Armenia that I admire is the very short window of the process. Registration must be completed by May 26; campaigning begins on June 7. Obviously, the “campaigning” process has begun, but at least the electorate is not driven to sheer exhaustion with redundant and negative campaigning.

With the drama and dynamics of the political process in Armenia, there are many possible outcomes but a smaller subset of probable results. The main adversaries in this election cycle seem to be Pashinyan and Kocharyan. Given that the former has the power of incumbency and the latter a fairly intact support infrastructure, one of these two seems probable in the final scenario. The options surrounding Pashinyan have him winning outright (50 percent or greater) or gaining a majority of seats without a 50 percent threshold. In the first scenario, he receives the “mandate” that he seeks from the “people,” and he would form a government with a majority in the parliament. Essentially, it is a continuance of his governance. In the second scenario, his mandate is somewhat compromised. It is possible because of the five percent threshold provision, which means that parties receiving less than five percent receive no seats. That would allow a majority winner to receive less than 50 percent. Although legal and Constitutional, it may not satisfy those voters who heard Pashinyan say only the voters can remove him. Does less than 50 percent constitute the voice of the people? Another scenario is that no one wins 50 percent or a majority of seats and a period of attempting to form a coalition government happens (six days in Armenia’s Constitution). This could result in a coalition government with numerous possibilities with many of the noted players or it could result in a failure to form a government. This would require a second parliamentary election where alliances could change. Another possibility to consider is that Kocharyan wins through an outright vote, majority of seats or becomes a dominant player in a coalition. The polls in Armenia from February through April show Pashinyan and Kocharyan trending in opposite directions. There are many questions about the reliability and trends of the polls, but it is generally perceived that Kocharyan entering the race would alter the dynamics.

This contest is about the security of Armenia. With the wounds of the 44-day war still open, POWs illegally held and incursions in Syunik, most Armenians are worrying about their sovereignty. Each candidate has their core support base that will remain. Despite his failures diplomatically and militarily, Pashinyan has retained a core of loyal supporters and those who feel he is better than any alternative. Those voters feel that the other option is a return to the past and all that comes with it. Kocharyan has his share of detractors given his controversial leadership, but it is also true that he is perceived as strong on national security. His message publicly is that he will secure the sovereignty of Armenia and Artsakh. Privately his message is that Russia has a significant influence in the current political dynamics, and he has the best relationship with Putin. Armenia has made great strides in the development and maturation of democratic institutions. Those who support Pashinyan or a possible coalition with Civil Contract tend to be fearful of the loss of democratic infrastructure and advances in societal rights. There are others who feel that the country must be “saved” now and that advances in democracy will continue as the crisis passes.

We must ask ourselves, is it possible to retain our sovereignty and continue our democratic initiatives? Can Pashinyan garner the credibility to strengthen and retain our national security rights? Can Kocharyan differentiate himself from the perception of his previous tenure? This election must be about both. Without national security, we won’t have the opportunity to become a world class nation. Without democratic values ingrained in the fabric of our society, what is the point of sovereignty? These are difficult choices. The leaders in this election have a responsibility to make this easier on the electorate by truly revealing their vision, their plans and actions during their public campaigning. Too often, these elections are centered around personalities and not the content of their governing plans. Regardless of the options presented, we are entering both an intriguing and critically important window. Everyone has a responsibility to preserve our democracy and to ensure that the nation is protected. We all have opinions about some of the alliances that have emerged. In a democracy, it’s called freedom of speech and expression. Democracy can be messy, especially a parliamentary democracy with many parties and alliances. Let’s keep in mind that much of this is caused by the emergence of democratic institutions and the ability of Armenians to freely express themselves. Focus on strengthening democracy and national security. We should not let the drama of politics be a distraction to the electorate. The June 20 elections must be about the challenges and not personalities. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *