April 30, 2012, 3:24 p.m.
On May 6th, Armenians will head to the polls to vote for members of their 131 seat National Assembly (parliament), the Azgayin Zhoghov. The Azgayin Zhoghov is a unicameral body where 90 seats are elected through closed-list proportional representation, while the other 41 seats are elected through plurality vote in single-member districts. All representatives are elected to five year terms. Eight political parties and one bloc have presented their parliamentary nominations and began officially campaigning for the national assembly as of as of April 8, 2012. ((These political parties running this this election include the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, the Prosperous Armenia Party, Rule of Law party, opposition Armenian National Congress, opposition Heritage Party, ARF Dashnaktsutyun, the Communist Party of Armenia, Democratic Party of Armenia and United Armenians Party.))
Background Surrounding the 2008 Election:
On February 19, 2008 then-Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian was elected the third president of Armenia with almost 52.8 percent of the vote. ((OSCE Republic of Armenia Presidential Election Observation Mission Report 19 February 2008)) Opposition candidates claimed that the polls had unfairly orchestrated in favor of Mr. Sarkisian, an ally of the outgoing president Robert Kocharian.
The following day, demonstrators began filling Yerevan’s Freedom Square in response to the election results, which they deemed as fraudulent. These demonstrations would continue peacefully until the morning of March 1, when police and security forces first attempted to disperse the demonstrators. This unrest escalated as security personnel used force against demonstrators, leading to President Kocharian implementing a 20-day state of emergency in which all demonstrations and unauthorized news broadcasts were banned. As a result of the crackdown ten people were killed, and 130 injured. ((OSCE Republic of Armenia Presidential Election Observation Mission Report 19 February 2008))
Current Political Situation:
Currently, Armenia’s government is made up of a ruling coalition which includes President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (Հայաստանի Հանրապետական Կուսակցություն, Hayastani Hanrapetakan Kusaktsutyun, HHK), the Prosperous Armenia Party (Բարգավաճ Հայաստան Կուսակցություն, Bargavadj Hayastan Kusaktsutyun) and the Rule of Law party (Օրինաց երկիր, Orinats Erkir). Main opposition parties within the government include Heritage (Ժառանգություն, Zharangutyun) and ARF Dashnaktsutyun (Հայ Յեղափոխական Դաշնակցութիւն, ՀՅԴ Hay Heghapokhagan Tashnagtsutiun, HYD; Հայ Յեղափոխական Դաշնակցություն Hay Heghapokhakan Dashnaktsutyun HYD). Non-parliamentary opposition entities include the Armenian National Congress bloc (Հայ Ազգային Կոնգրես, Hay Azgayin Kongres) led by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian and the Armenian social movement known as the Sardarapat Movement (Սարդարապատ» շարժում).
After the 2008 elections, the relations between the dominant political parties and the opposition have become even more chilled. Not only was the election deemed fraudulent by the opposition, but they felt they had been locked out of the political process due to the ruling party’s monopoly on state power and resources. Furthermore, the hostility between the two groups has meant that there have been deadlocks on such key issues as political, economic and legal reforms and the dispute over improving relations with neighboring Turkey. ((Part of this tension springs from the Nagorno-Karabakh War which started in February 1988 and lasted until May 1994. This conflict pitted the ethnic Armenian majority of Nagorno-Karabakh wishing to be reunited with Armenia (and who were also backed by Armenia) and Azerbaijan, like Turkey a historical rival of Armenia. Brutal fighting would continue for six years and eventually lead to the cease fire agreement known as the Bishkek Protocol, which is still in effect. In turn, it also allowed for a de facto independent Nagorno-Karabakh. Currently, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh have extremely close ties; however, there is no move towards reunification due to fear of retaliation from Azerbaijan, which is strongly backed by Turkey.))
In response to the flawed 2008 Presidential election, the Armenian parliament enacted election law reforms. Working with the opposition and international experts, including IFES, a new electoral code was approved by the National Assembly in May of last year and signed into law by President Sarkisian a month later. The new provisions include more balance and efficiency in selecting election management officials, including the Central Election Commission; clarity for local election observers’ mandate; improved procedures for resolution of election disputes, and strengthened enforcement of campaign finance laws. Nevertheless, some in the opposition have raised concerns over code provisions addressing election management, complaint adjudication, domestic observers’ accreditation and videotaping voting and counting. ((OSCE Republic of Armenia Parliamentary Elections Needs Assessment Mission Report 2012))
Concerns over possible malfeasance are prevalent in Armenian public affairs. Due to these concerns, four political parties have come together in a joint effort and set up the Inter-Party Center for Public Oversight of Elections in order to combat fraud as and curb the illegal use of administrative resources in elections. ((Armenia Now, Vote 2012: Opposition, government create dual – and dueling – monitoring staffs))
For their part, the Republican Party initiated their own election “code of conduct” for all of the political parties and candidates to follow. In response, the Republican Party has set up its own election “code of conduct” for all of the political parties and candidates to follow. ((Radio Free Europe, News Analysis: Government Promises 'New Armenia' As Vote Nears ))
An ongoing issue in Armenia’s electoral administration is accurate voter registration. Official voter records from the Armenian Police’s Passport and Visa Division indicates the number of eligible voters in the country as of March 27 was 2,485,844, while the current population is 2,871,000. Official numbers appear to include Armenians who are no longer permanent residents in the country, and estimate the number of Armenians under the age of 18 at 400,000. Opposition political parties fear these discrepancies in the numbers will make it easier for the ruling parties to justify votes gained through illicit methods, such as submitting multiple votes for one candidate – or, ballot-stuffing. ((Armenia Now, Edited list: Armenian police say the number of voters has been decreased after being checked))
Not only do these official numbers reflect Armenians who are no longer permanent residents, but if they are correct they also state that the total number of Armenians under the age 18 is less than 400,000. Opposition parties fear that with these discrepancies in the voter numbers would make it easier for the Republican Party to justify votes that had been gained through illegal means, such as one submitting multiple votes for one candidate otherwise known as “ballot-stuffing. ((Armenia Now, Edited list: Armenian police say the number of voters has been decreased after being checked))
The Heritage Party and the Armenian National Congress bloc have both stated they will take to the streets and stage anti-government protests if the National Assembly elections are considered “rigged.” ((Azatutyun, Opposition Party ‘Ready’ For Post-Election Protests))
Armenian political leaders’ statements suggest optimism on the eve of the elections. President Sarkisian recently stated that the 2012 election will be the start of a “new Armenia.” Former president Levon Ter-Petrosian commented that changing views both at home and abroad, reinforced by the Arab Spring, are helping Armenia move toward a more democratic future. ((Radio Free Europe, News Analysis: Government Promises 'New Armenia' As Vote Nears)) At the same time, some new political entities such as the Sardarapat Movement, which is not participating in the election, suggest that only broad systemic change can make elections in Armenia relevant. Will this generation of Armenians overcome twenty years of post-Soviet politics to pursue more competition and openness their country’s politics? Early Gallup public opinion polls show 34 percent of Armenians will vote for the Republican Party and 28 percent prefer Prosperous Armenia, which would translate into Republicans losing their majority in the next National Assembly. ((Armenia Now, Vote 2012: Main opposition accent on breaking political monopoly)) If Prosperous Armenia is able to win a majority in the next parliament, or block the Republicans of their majority, then it is believed former President Kocharian, whose support would be strengthened with this turn of events, could make his political comeback with a presidential bid in 2013. ((Armenia Now, Vote 2012: Main opposition accent on breaking political monopoly))Still, while there have been cracks in the ruling coalition as Prosperous stakes out a greater role in government, the coalition remains the single dominant political force in the country, and appears positioned to take a majority of seats on May 6.