Quo Vadis, Armenia?

Elections Generic
Armenian citizens prepare to vote in parliamentary elections. Image by Photolure

Armenians will be heading to the polls at the beginning of next month to elect the party, or bloc of parties, that will govern the country for the next four years and, indirectly, also the person who will become president until 2025. And this with just a stroke of a pen in one of the nine ballots voters will be handed when entering the polling station. So, for the first time in the history of the country, stakes will be at their highest on April 2, the day when the first post-constitutional reform legislative elections will take place.

Although most of the contestants at the time of the last parliamentary elections remain the same, a lot has changed in the last four years. First of all, the rules of the game are different. Thus, the new legislature will be elected by an exclusively proportional electoral system, which substitutes the previous (mixed) one, which combined both majoritarian and proportional elements. This will certainly have important consequences for Armenia’s political development in general, and the country’s party system in particular. Especially because the new electoral system, a copy of Italy’s - never implemented - “Italicum”, contains many features that makes it even more disproportional than its precedent: The five percent electoral threshold for parties (7 percent for blocs) to gain seats in the Azgayin Zhoghov; the electoral formula (i.e. D’Hondt) employed for the selection of representatives in the regional lists, but especially the automatic (54 percent) majority bonus for the party/bloc obtaining more than half of the votes on April 2, or winning the eventual French style run-off in a second round of voting if none of the parties/blocs manages to win 50 percent of the votes in the first round or to form a majority government representing at least 54 percent of the votes during the week following the (first round of) elections. Although still difficult to foresee, the result predicted by most scholars is the formation of a two-bloc party system instead of the more fragmented five- to six-party system characteristic of Armenia since 1995.

Secondly, the new parliament will have the responsibility to appoint, without any interference from the president, a new prime minister who will, for the first time, not just supervise, but also lead the government activities, determining its policies. Thus, for the first time in the history of independent Armenia, the government will be the only recipient of executive power and the parliament the only recipient of legislative competences. It is for these two reasons, but not only, that next month’s parliamentary elections are so important. Because the party/bloc that will control the parliament will have in its hands the future (democratic or authoritarian, pro-Russian or pro-European, etc.) of the country.

Thirdly, the new MPs will have the opportunity to select the head of state already at the beginning of next year, when the current president Serzh Sargsyan will step down after 10 consecutive years in office. In clear contrast to the latter, the new president will only have a ceremonial character but, wisely chosen, could certainly help to reduce the polarization that has accompanied the office since its creation, and especially in the last few years.

Last but not least, for the first time since the independence of the country in 1991 there is a great chance that the incumbent Republican party (RPA) loses the elections. According to the last polling the “Tsarukyan Alliance”, led by the Prosperous Party of Armenia (BHK) founded by millionaire Gagik Tsarukyan, has roughly a 4 per cent lead over the presidentially-backed RPA. If, as the most recent polls suggest, no other party manages to pass the 5 percent threshold and, therefore, gain parliamentary representation, Armenia will experience its first wholesale government alternation in more than two decades. Something that, as previously stated, is essential for a country whose democratic credentials have continuously been called into question.

As it follows, it seems clear that this spring the stage is set for a new play in the Armenian theater. The institutional changes introduced by the December 2015 constitutional reform, especially the adoption of a disproportional proportional electoral system, the substitution of semi-presidentialism for parliamentarism and the increase – at least formally – in the level of independence of the judiciary, coupled with the winds of political change currently blowing in the Armenian electorate seems to predict a new time in the long history of a country which, without any foreign interference (e.g. mainly Russia, but also Turkey or Azerbaijan), might start to see the light at the end of the (autocratic) tunnel.

It is now for Armenians to make the right choice because, as the British poet Alfred Tennyson once said, “the shell must break before the bird can fly.”

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