A Wave of New Political Parties Crashes Onto the Scene

Armenia’s 100th political party received its official registration on May 24, 2021. Thirty-one founding congresses for new parties have been scheduled since the start of the year, a quantity not seen since the country gained independence 30 years ago (and the year is not even halfway through yet). The sheer quantity of registered political parties is often the subject of ridicule. The reason is that the vast majority of the existing ones are completely inactive; they field no candidates, spend no money and might not even have a web presence. To be frank, a lot of them probably barely have a few dozen members. While their execution often flops, one should not be so harsh on the new arrivals. In fact, this newfound enthusiasm for political involvement is a very welcome development.

Especially for Armenia’s older generation, the Armenian word for political party, kusaktsutyun, carries a deep stigma. They remember a time when “the Party” referred to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Joining it had to do more with staying loyal to party bosses to try to gain their favor, than affecting change from the grassroots. Even after independence, the fact that most political parties were fully controlled by a single individual served to perpetuate the ingrained stereotype of a constraining hierarchy. While that image persists, it is beginning to crack as a new post-independence generation enters their 30s.

To be fair, a lot of these new political parties are still the pet projects of a single individual, as were the Civil Contract Party and Bright Armenia Party. But what set the latter two apart in their early years was a new level of openness, an emphasis on shared ideals, and a willingness to field candidates in elections at the municipal level. Starting a political party is hard work. It takes a lot of time, a lot of money and most importantly a lot of people. To gain the necessary experience, you might also have to persevere through a number of failures. The Civil Contract Party received only 1.5% of the vote in the October 2016 Gyumri municipal election; a mere two years later, their leader became the Prime Minister.

 

How to Found a New Party

Amending the Law on Political Parties was the first initiative of the Parliamentary Working Group on Electoral Reform when it was formed in September 2019. The lengthy and inclusive public consultation process was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and then the 2020 Artsakh War, but the final changes were finally passed into law on December 29, 2020 with Bill C-750.

Once you and your friends have decided to start a new political party, you need to schedule a founding congress at least a month in advance and make a public announcement on the government’s azdarar.am public announcement website. When the day comes, you need to get 300 people to come together to vote to found the party, accept its by-laws and elect an executive body. In an earlier draft of Bill C-750, it was suggested that parties’ executive bodies have a 40% gender quota; however, this requirement was removed from the final version when parliamentary party representatives said they would have difficulty meeting it. One new requirement that was added was that elections to the executive body must be by secret ballot, so that party members would be free to vote their conscience without undue pressure.

Before the recent changes, political parties were expected to have formed territorial subunits in at least three of Armenia’s ten regions, as well as Yerevan, before they could be officially registered. This requirement was eliminated with Bill C-750.

After holding the founding congress, you have up to one year to bring the necessary paperwork to the State Registrar, a department of the Ministry of Justice. There, civil servants will check to make sure the party platform doesn’t call for the abolishment of the constitutional order and that all the other papers are in order. They have up to one month to officially approve or reject the application. Only after the application is approved is the political party officially registered.

While it was mentioned that 31 founding congresses have been scheduled to date, only 16 political parties have received their official registration in the same timeframe. They are:

  • Justice and Homeland Party
  • Christian-Democratic Party
  • For the Republic Defenders of Democracy Alliance Party
  • My Armenia Party
  • Ascent Party
  • Stability Party
  • Liberal Party
  • Awakening National Christian Party
  • Legal State Party
  • National Democratic Axis Pan-Armenian Party
  • Sovereign Armenia Party
  • Fair Armenia Party
  • Pan-Armenian National State Party
  • Shant Alliance Party
  • Voice Liberal-Conservative Party
  • United Homeland Party

To see the process of how the party founding congress unfolds, I attended as many as I could as a media representative.

 

September 21, 2020: For the Republic Defenders of Democracy Alliance Party

In September 2019, Arman Babajanyan left the Bright Armenia Caucus to sit as an independent MP. One year later, on the country’s Independence Day, he was leading the foundation of a new party in front of the Matenadaran at the end of Mashtots Avenue in Yerevan. The event had a high production value, with a large stage and a long list of speakers from key founding members, meant to showcase the party to the media. The public portion of the event was more akin to a rally. Babajanyan spoke about how the Velvet Revolution was not for one man, but for all Armenians, and that it had created the environment for new parties to come forward and create a competitive political field. When the speeches were finished, guests who were not founding members were asked to leave before the business portion of the congress began.

The 2020 Artsakh War broke out a week after the event and understandably delayed its registration process. However, on March 12, 2021, straddling the pre- and post-Bill C-750 regulations, the party was officially registered. Prior to Bill C-750, a party only needed 100 attendees at its founding congress, followed by collecting at least 800 signatures from new members (including the minimum territorial distribution of their residences). After Bill C-750 came into effect, the process was streamlined into one event with 300 people present. It seemed the earlier rules applied to the For the Republic Defenders of Democracy Alliance Party.

 

April 3, 2021: Stability Party

At the peak of the third wave of COVID-19 cases in Armenia, Firdus Zakaryan entertained a full crowd at the Latar Banquet Hall in Yerevan’s Ajapnyak suburb. Face masks were available at the registration desk and most people were keeping them on. It was much more of an internal affair; I was the only media representative present. Zakaryan, a former Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) member, had been the Chief of Staff to former Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobyan until the Velvet Revolution in 2018. Lernik Aleksanyan, an RPA MP from 1998 to 2012, was also sitting on the stage with him. The official count was 327 participants. The party did have a real ideology as speaker after speaker, who mostly tended on the older side, spoke about the virtues of democratic socialism. While they weren’t advocating for a return to the communism of their youth (a few admitted to having joined the Communist Party when it was the only option), they very clearly wanted to increase the size of the state. The policy platform included regulating the Internet (because of the polarization on social media), looking at returning to a semi-presidential constitutional model, eliminating regional governors in favor of the smaller counties from Soviet times, eliminating Grade 12 (which prompted one lady to speak up that she disagreed), and restoring a Ministry of Culture.

They were very careful to go through the formality of a secret ballot to elect the executive body, even though only seven people were nominated for seven positions; most received 320 votes in favor and 1 abstention. The party was officially registered on May 5, 2021.

 

April 10, 2021: United Armenia Party

The official announcement for the founding congress on April 10 at the Great Hall of the Government Building behind Republic Square said it was for the Patriots’ (Hayrenaserneri) Party. When I arrived and received my package of materials, however, it was all branded as United Armenia Party, analogous to the United Russia Party that Vladimir Putin leads in Russia. Although there is also a United Armenia Party in Artsakh, led by Vahan Badasyan, the two are unrelated. It was the first instance I came across where the advertised name in the azdarar.am announcement had been completely changed by the time of the event, though the For the Republic Defenders of Democracy Alliance Party had initially been advertised as Union for the Republic Party.

The hall, with its theater seating, was quite full, and it was announced that 317 members were present. While the previous two congresses did not get underway until about half an hour after the scheduled time announced on azdarar.am, this one started only 10 minutes late and was very efficient; the whole thing took less than an hour. I did notice, however, that the vote for the executive body was by a show of hands, not through secret ballot as required by the new Law on Political Parties. The main person was Yervand Tarverdyan, who was busy with television interviews after the event. He was adamant that he was the right person to unite all sides of the political divide (both “old” and “new”) under the slogan “Stable Economy, Strong State.” At the time of writing, the State Registrar website does not indicate that any party named United Armenia Party has been officially registered.

 

April 17, 2021: Intellectual Armenia Party

The types of venues for founding congresses were very varied. This one was in a conference hall on the second floor of the Elite Plaza office building in downtown Yerevan. They used an innovation that I hadn’t seen before: secret ballots to vote for founding the party were handed out at the registration desk, and participants were able to drop them into the ballot box before the congress officially began. The official count was 318 votes in favor, 2 against and 2 spoiled ballots. It was striking how all these parties always had just slightly over the 300 founding member minimum. Manuk Sukiasyan was elected President of the executive body through a show of hands. While he did say that “Science has no alternative” and that their view of knowledge included the know-how of mechanics and cooks, most of the speeches were centered on Artsakh and the catastrophic defeat in 2020. One of the speakers represented the Justice Party of Artsakh, which finished third in the 2020 Artsakh election. Another speaker was a veteran of the 2020 Artsakh War.

They identified anti-corruption as another important policy direction, criticizing Nikol Pashinyan for his inability to extract restitution of “the plunder,” i.e. the ill-gotten gains of the oligarchic class. They suggested that there should be a cap such that no political party can receive more than 40% of the seats in parliament, in order to ensure the government is always a coalition of diverse viewpoints.

At the time of writing, the State Registrar website does not indicate that any party named Intellectual Armenia Party has been officially registered.

 

April 23, 2021: United Homeland Party

As the announced June 20 election date approached, I noticed the founding congresses were less and less organized. On Friday, April 23, I arrived at the Marriott Hotel’s large Tigran Mets conference room at noon; it was the first one scheduled on a weekday. The cavernous room looked conspicuously empty. After a 20 minute delay, Mher Terteryan, who had served as an adviser to former RPA Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, announced that some of their participants were held up in traffic but that they would be starting shortly. When the speeches began, there could not have been more than 150 people there, and even that figure was being generous.

Terteryan emphasized his rejection of splitting the population into the “old” and the “new,” pledging that his rhetoric would not criticize others but focus on the future. He lamented that the media was highly politicized and encouraged attendees to share the party’s message directly on social media.

Voting in the seven-person executive body was technically by secret ballot, but the names were pre-printed on a piece of paper that the attendees received. After they had been collected, it was only announced that the body had been elected “by the majority,” without giving a number of votes cast. Terteryan reiterated that his former role was not a political one. He “didn’t owe anything” to his former team and was not getting any funding from them. Looking at the room, I believed him.

United Homeland Party was the name of Samvel Babayan’s party, which ran in Artsakh’s 2020 election. Some media incorrectly reported that Babayan was involved with this United Homeland Party in the Republic of Armenia as well, but the two are not related. Babayan has founded a new party in Armenia called the Liberal Party. Terteryan’s party received official registration on May 25, 2021.

 

April 30, 2021: Independence Generation Party

It seemed very common for new parties in Armenia to use the names of parties in Artsakh, but be completely unrelated to them. Another example was the Independence Generation Party. On April 30, I arrived at the detached house with a nice garden in Yerevan’s Aygestan district, where the founding congress had been announced would take place. I was a little hesitant to walk through the fence gate until a few people saw me and came out to greet me. The group of young people informed me that the congress had been postponed but invited me in for coffee. Another journalist from infocom.am was also looking for the place but left when she learned the congress would not take place that day.

It turned out they were the group of students that had formerly been members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s (ARF) Nikol Aghbalyan Student Union. In late 2019, a few of them had been kicked out of the party for refusing to participate in protests calling for the resignation of then-Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport Arayik Harutyunyan, a member of Pashinyan’s My Step government. After their memberships were terminated, a number of others followed them by resigning from the ARF.

The group was renting the house as their clubhouse and library, but it obviously did not have enough space to fit 300 people. They said they were considering conducting the founding congress over Zoom. Electronic participation is not foreseen by the Law on Political Parties, but it also has nothing in it that outright prohibits it. At the time of writing, the State Registrar website does not indicate that any party named Independence Generation Party has been officially registered.

 

May 13, 2021: Pan-Armenian National State Party

My experiences had been mostly welcoming. Most new parties are enthusiastic about getting out the word through media and broadening their reach. The one exception was on Thursday, May 13, when I arrived back at the Tigran Mets Hall of the Marriott Hotel at 11 a.m., as announced in the Pan-Armenian National State Party’s azdarar.am posting. It seems holding weekday congresses there has some bad luck. The doors to the hall were closed, with only a few people outside. They informed me that the congress had been rescheduled to start at noon, and the video screen outside the room confirmed that. However, they did not let me wait inside and suggested I may not be allowed in at all. I sat on the couch in the lobby area until closer to noon, when people started trickling in. During a gap in the flow, I asked if I could enter the room yet. Instead, the head of the organizing committee, Artur Vardanyan, came out to speak to me in the lobby. He explained that their mission was to restore confidence in the people of Armenia, by putting forward “clean” (i.e. untainted) candidates, and that their ideology was centered on nationalism, including encouraging the diaspora to move back to Armenia. It was suggested that some attendees might be participating through Zoom. There definitely was nowhere near 300 people walking in, and I suspected they did not want the word to get out. The party was officially registered on May 21.

 

May 16, 2021: Fair Armenia Party

I had gotten used to slight changes from the official congress announcements; sometimes the name was changed, sometimes the time was changed. The most annoying instance was on Sunday, May 16, however, when I walked up to the Orbelyan Street office of Norikyan and Co. Legal Offices, on the first floor of a residential building, where it had been announced the founding congress of the Fair Armenia Party would be held.

No one was there. I rang the bell, I knocked on the door, no answer. I called the mobile phone number posted on the corporate sign outside, but it was no longer in service. I called the landline, which rang and rang with no answer. I had previously met Norayr Norikyan, the representative of the Fair Armenia Party, at a consultation session on the new Electoral Code. I emailed him, asking if the venue of the congress had changed. After waiting for 20 minutes outside, and with neighbors starting to stare at me through their windows, I walked home. He still hasn’t answered my email. Later, a video was posted live on their Facebook page, where Norikyan was making a speech at Elite Plaza, where it appears the venue had been changed to.

The original founding congress for the party had taken place on February 20. It seemed they needed to do some things over again to meet the legal requirements as checked by the State Registrar. It did the trick; the party received its official registration on May 21.

 

May 17, 2021: Voice Liberal-Conservative Party

The following day, a Monday, I went to another do-over meeting. The Voice Liberal-Conservative Party had held their founding congress on March 28. Again, to correct issues with their by-laws, they were holding a second event. It was meant as a purely digital meeting, where the filming was taking place from a clothing store in a shopping center.

To reveal my personal bias, this group impressed me the most. Although they were registering very late in the game, which is bound to impact their electoral chances, their materials were the most polished, preaching an ideology of decentralization and personal empowerment, including increased use of local referendums to decide important municipal issues. Their party president, Arusyak Hayrapetyan, was the only female party leader among all the congresses I attended. She had studied management in Geneva and had 15 years of private sector experience in Switzerland. Other executive body members include Alla Grigoryan, who had moved back to Armenia from Madrid, and Tatev Sayatyan, who had repatriated from the United States in 2014.

Hayrapetyan understood that many like-minded reformist parties had been founded recently and was open to running as part of an alliance with others for the June 20 election. She said that she had been approached by multiple other teams, especially as their roster is gender-balanced and other parties expressed difficulty in recruiting female candidates.

The party finally received official registration on May 25, 2021.

 

May 17, 2021: Country of the Future Party

I left the Voice Liberal-Conservative Party’s meeting before it ended, so that I could make it to another founding congress scheduled for that day. Arriving back at the Marriott’s Tigran Mets Hall, my suspicion that that venue was cursed was confirmed. Expecting to meet the Country of the Future Party, I walked into an empty room. Though the chairs were set up, the lights were off, and I suspected there had been another time change. However, the hotel staff informed me that the booking had been cancelled.

 

Not All New Parties Are New

There have been other upstart parties this year that did not go through the obstacle course of official registration. Once a party is registered, it is very difficult for it to be de-registered (because of the stigma associated with the government causing problems for political opponents). Some of them may have even missed several annual financial filings (due by March 25 every year), but seen no consequences.

One new party that is actually an old party is the Homeland Party, now led by Artur Vanetsyan. After being fired by Nikol Pashinyan as the head of the National Security Service (NSS), he announced he would be entering the political field. Many thought the Homeland Party he started to lead was founded by him. In fact, the Homeland Party has been registered since 1991 and was previously led by Zhasmen Asryan. They had never participated in an election before and their annual filings (which they filed diligently) always showed zero revenue and zero expenses, even the one for 2020 when the party was opening new offices. It is believed that the party’s finances are being funneled through a legally-separate Homeland Foundation, which is subject to less restrictions.

Other parties that chose to repurpose an existing registered political party include the 5165 Movement Conservative Party, named after the elevation in meters of Mount Ararat. After holding a party congress on April 25 (which was originally advertised under the name Van National-Conservative Party), instead of completing a new party registration, an existing party called Mother Fatherland Party was renamed to take on their new brand.

Other recent renamings include:

  • The Populist Party is now the National Development Process Party
  • The Mission Party (the junior partner of the now-dissolved My Step Alliance) is now the Liveable Country Party
  • The National State Party is now the “Hayrenater” Party, which loosely translates to Proprietor of the Homeland
  • The Liberal Party of Armenia is now the Hayk Liberal Party
  • In 2019, the Justice and Prosperity Party was renamed Resurgent Armenia Party
  • The National Democratic Axis Pan-Armenian Party is essentially a rebranding of the Sasna Tzrer Pan-Armenian Party, although the latter maintains its separate registration.

With a 5% (soon to be 4%) electoral threshold, there is not room for 100 parties in Armenia. The philosophy to date has been that there is no harm in leaving these inactive entities registered, and there is merit in erring on the side of liberalization.

Introducing a requirement for them to collect signatures from a minimum of 300 people on an annual basis, reaffirming that they are still members of the party, and requiring a low but non-zero annual expenditure requirement could help consolidate them into larger ideological groupings, instead of vehicles for individual personalities. That’s an issue for the next parliament to discuss; it will be interesting to see if any of these new faces will be part of it.

An election primer outlining all the parties, new and old, participating in the June 20 election will be published in the coming days.

Armenians are scheduled to return to the ballot box on June 20, in the third parliamentary election in five years. This election is being held at a time of crisis for the country, in the aftermath of the 2020 Artsakh War. 

EVN Report’s May issue, entitled “Political Culture,” looks back on the evolution of democratic expression in Armenia, from the first parliamentary election in 1919 to political cartoons to the modern day.

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