Will Armenian Parliamentary Election Lead To Radical New Political Configuration?

Even before campaigning for the May 6 Armenian parliamentary election began on April 8, it was already shaping up to be the first national ballot since the disputed 1996 presidential election in which the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

Even before campaigning for the May 6 Armenian parliamentary election began on April 8, it was already shaping up to be the first national ballot since the disputed 1996 presidential election in which the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

True, a prominent member of President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) has publicly affirmed that party's intention to garner a 50 percent majority in the new legislature; but there is no guarantee that it will do so if the voting is free and fair. And three of the HHK's most prominent challengers have jointly pledged to work together to preclude a repeat of the vote-rigging that has been a hallmark of successive elections over the past 10-15 years.

The election is widely perceived as a vote of confidence in Sarkisian's administration and, by extension, as a preliminary to next year's presidential ballot in which Sarkisian will seek a second term. As such, it is a struggle between Sarkisian and his team to retain power and personal wealth in defiance of the opposition parties' determination to supplant and bring to account a leadership they regard as corrupt, venal, inept, lacking legitimacy, and as having contributed to the emigration over the past four years in search of a better life of at least 78,000 people.

The key difference between today and 1996 is that then, Vazgen Manukian was widely regarded as a viable, credible, and acceptable alternative to incumbent President Levon Ter-Petrossian, whereas now many voters either do not trust any opposition political party or, convinced that the HHK will rig the election outcome, have concluded there is no point in voting.

The daily "Hraparak" observed on April 12 that "none of the forces on the political arena satisfies the people," while "Hayots ashkhar" pinpointed as one of the reasons for that lack of voter appeal the parties' shared failure to "come up with something new, fresh or even extraordinary."

Party Slates

Eight separate parties and one bloc have registered to contest the 90 parliament mandates allocated under the party list system. (In 2007, the figure was 22 parties and one bloc.) In addition to the HHK, they are: Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia, BH) and Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State), its junior partners in the ruling coalition government; the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) that initially accepted Sarkisian's invitation to join the coalition government but quit in April 2009 to protest his policy of rapprochement with Turkey; the Communist Party of Armenia; the Democratic Party of Armenia; the Zharangutiun (Heritage) Party, the only opposition party represented in the outgoing parliament; and the obscure United Armenians Party whose leader, Ruben Avakian, ran unsuccessfully for president in 2003.

The sole bloc is the Armenian National Congress (HAK), a loose alignment of some 20 political parties and movements headed by Ter-Petrossian.

Political parties must win a minimum 5 percent of the vote to qualify for parliamentary representation, and blocs 7 percent. The higher threshold may be why Zharangutiun and the Free Democrats headed by Alexander Arzoumanian, who served as foreign minister under Ter-Petrossian, did not formalize the agreement they cemented last month. Instead, candidates from the Free Democrats have been included on the Zharangutiun party list.

Efforts by Zharangutiun and the HHD to push through the outgoing parliament amendments to the Electoral Code under which all 131 mandates would be allocated under the party-list system were voted down by the HHK. Former Justice Minister David Harutiunian (HHK) said holding elections exclusively on the proportional system before "inner-party democracy" took root in Armenia would only lead to a "dictatorship of party elites." Parliament deputy speaker Samvel Balasanian (BH) argued that adopting a 100 percent proportional system would deprive voters in rural areas of any contact with their elected representative as it would result in a parliament composed exclusively of residents of Yerevan.

The HHK list is headed by President Sarkisian. In violation of assurances by senior HHK members, it includes many wealthy businessmen with links to the ruling coalition.

First on the HAK slate is Ter-Petrossian, who personally selected all 120 names on the list. They include People's Party Chairman Stepan Demirchian, who lost to incumbent Robert Kocharian in the 2003 presidential election; former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian; Hrant Bagratian, who served as prime minister under Ter-Petrossian; Nikol Pashinian, editor of the opposition daily "Haykakan zhamanak"; and HAK coordinator Levon Zurabian.

Party Chairman Gagik Tsarukian, a wealthy businessman who is reportedly regarded by many Armenians as a "living legend" on account of his charitable activities, tops the BH list. Second is Vartan Oskanian, who served as foreign minister under Kocharian from 1998 to 2008, and until recently headed the Civilitas Foundation that has worked for the past four years to reduce rural poverty and strengthen civil society. Oskanian joined BH only in February.

Zharangutiun Chairman Raffi Hovannisian and Free Democrats leader Arzoumanian similarly occupy the first and second place on their parties' combined list.

The remaining 41 parliament mandates are allocated in single-mandate constituencies. The HHK has nominated candidates in 33 constituencies, the HAK in 38. Zharangutiun leader Hovannisian appealed in late March to other opposition parties to agree on fielding one single common opposition candidate in those single-mandate constituencies, but that appeal went unheeded.

Demand For Reforms

As noted above, opposition parties across the political spectrum are demanding not only new economic policies aimed at reducing unemployment and creating favorable conditions for small businesses, but wide-reaching political reforms.

Speaking at a BH congress in March, for example, Tsarukian, criticized the government's inability to create new jobs, its failure to support small and medium-sized businesses, and its overall response to the 2008-09 global financial crisis.

The Dashnaks, for their part, went even further, calling for "comprehensive regime change," including the transition from a presidential to a parliamentary republic. At the same time, none of the speakers at the HHD's first campaign rally criticized Sarkisian by name.

Ter-Petrossian for his part said in late March that in the event it emerged as the winner, his party would demand Sarkisian's resignation as president. Ter-Petrossian continues to claim that he won the February 2008 presidential ballot with 65 percent of the vote. According to official returns he received just 25.6 percent, compared with 52 percent for Sarkisian.

Most observers anticipate that the HHK, BH, and the HAK will secure representation in the new legislature, with the Dashnaks and the Zharangutiun/Free Democrats alliance too standing a good chance of doing so. That raises the possibility of a parliament that includes a former president, at least one former prime minister, and three former foreign ministers, two of them (Hovannisian and Oskanian) former U.S. citizens.

But as noted above, the HHK may not obtain the 50 percent majority to which it aspires. What kind of political alliances might emerge in the event of a hung parliament will depend on the readiness of the parties involved to sacrifice principles to political expediency.

Ter-Petrossian has repeatedly signaled his readiness for cooperation with BH. In November, he said such an alignment could "radically change the configuration of political forces and become a serious guarantee for the restoration of constitutional order and the implementation of necessary reforms.... It could at the same time serve as a basis for the formation of a broader coalition of opposition forces."

BH has not responded to those overtures, however, although it has made clear its readiness to form a new, "genuine" coalition in contrast to what Oskanian in a recent interview he gave to RFE/RL's Armenian Service termed the current "formal" one. Oskanian said BH anticipated winning enough parliament mandates to broker the creation of such a "real" coalition, but he did not specify with which party or parties.

Whether BH will indeed gain enough votes to play power broker remains to be seen. Tsarukian for his part told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that "Nothing can be ruled out.... The main thing is not to look for enemies among ourselves. We must close ranks. Everyone must think about the country's power, economic development and the people's welfare. If everyone supports that, then they should unite."


Copyright (c) RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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