The latest phone survey about the coming Armenian parliamentary election was released by Marketing Professional Group (MPG) on May 22, 2021. MPG is the Armenian affiliate of Gallup International Association. For clarity, Gallup Inc., based in the U.S., is no longer a member of Gallup International Association. Both entities were founded by American pollster George Gallup.
The poll asked 800 Armenian residents a series of questions between May 18 and May 21, 2021, related to the ongoing border crisis and the country’s general political situation. For reference, the border crisis began on May 12. It was on May 19, in the middle of the polling period, that the existence of a new draft agreement between Nikol Pashinyan, Ilham Aliyev and Vladimir Putin was leaked by Mikayel Minasyan, son-in-law to former President and leader of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) Serzh Sargsyan.
The poll claims a margin of error of ±3.5%. Although it does not report a confidence level, the standard for the industry is for results to fall within the reported margin of error 19 times out of 20.
This was the first poll conducted by MPG since the announcements of several political parties that they would group together in a number of electoral alliances, presenting joint candidate lists. When asked “If the election were held this Sunday, which party or alliance would you vote for?” the results were the following:
· Civil Contract Party: 24.8%
· Armenia Alliance: 14.3%
· Prosperous Armenia Party: 4.1%
· I’m Honored Alliance: 3.1%
· Republic Party: 2.5%
· Bright Armenia Party: 2.0%
· Shirinyan-Babajanyan Alliance: 1.6%
· Armenians’ Homeland Party: 1.2%
· Armenian National Congress Party: 1.1%
· Sasna Tzrer/National Democratic Axis: 1.0%
· 5165 Movement: 0.5%
· Citizens’ Decision Social-Democratic Party: 0.4%
· Fair Armenia Party: 0.4%
· Alliance Progressive-Centrist Party: 0.4%
· Communist Party of Armenia: 0.1%
· Other Political Parties: 1.2%
· Refused to Answer: 13.3%
· Difficulty Answering: 14.6%
· None of them: 13.4%
The results confirm a trend, observed from comparing monthly poll results since February, that momentum is shifting away from Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party, with Robert Kocharyan, who leads the Armenia Alliance with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and Resurgent Armenia Party, as the main beneficiary. An election primer providing background on the different parties and alliances will be published on EVN Report in the coming days.
As useful as it is to know the percentages the parties receive among all poll respondents, at the end of the day, only citizens who actually bother to vote will matter. Thus, it would be prudent to recalculate and analyze the results of decided voters only (taking out the “Refused to Answer,” “Difficulty Answering” and “None of them” responses from the total), always keeping in mind that supporters of different parties may have different levels of shyness about reporting their voting intentions to a stranger on the phone. Doing so yields the following results:
· Civil Contract Party: 42.1%
· Armenia Alliance: 24.3%
· Prosperous Armenia Party: 7.0%
· I’m Honored Alliance: 5.3%
· Republic Party: 4.3%
· Bright Armenia Party: 3.4%
· Shirinyan-Babajanyan Alliance: 2.8%
· Armenians’ Homeland Party: 2.1%
· Armenian National Congress Party: 1.9%
· Sasna Tzrer/National Democratic Axis: 1.7%
· 5165 Movement: 0.9%
· Citizens’ Decision Social-Democratic Party: 0.6%
· Fair Armenia Party: 0.6%
· Alliance Progressive-Centrist Party: 0.6%
· Communist Party of Armenia: 0.2%
· Other Political Parties: 2.1%
It is worth repeating that all polls have errors, and there is still one month before election day for people to change their minds. Nevertheless, analyzing these preliminary figures does provide some insights. First of all, it suggests that only three contenders will pass the electoral threshold; in order to gain any seats in parliament, a political party must receive at least 5% of the votes cast. Electoral alliances of two or more parties have a higher electoral threshold of 7%. Only Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party, Kocharyan’s Armenia Alliance and Gagik Tsarukyan’s Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP) seem to be over the threshold. The I’m Honoured Alliance between the RPA and the Homeland Party, though up from their April numbers, is below the 7% alliance threshold. There is a loophole in which they could choose to register as a single political party and still field candidates from both constituent parties, as long as the junior partner provides less than 30% of the candidates. If they did so, they would have to use the dominant partner’s name, however, and abandon the I’m Honored Alliance brand (which is little over one week old).
All the other political parties, including Bright Armenia, which is currently the third-place party in parliament, are polling below the 5% threshold. If these results were reproduced on election day, a record 26.6% of all votes cast (more than one in four) would be disregarded. Below is a summary of the size of disregarded votes (for proportional seats) in previous Armenian parliamentary elections as a result of the electoral threshold:
· 1995: 12.8%
· 1999: 18.6%
· 2003: 24.0%
· 2007: 24.7%
· 2012: 1.6%
· 2017: 9.1%
· 2018: 14.9%
When the Armenian parliament voted on April 1, 2021 to abandon the open list (“ratingayin”) component of regional candidates, it was presented as a move to a “simple proportional” (“parz metsamasnakan”) model. However, characterizing the change in this way is not accurate. It was a change to a fully closed list model, abandoning the open list component (for very good reasons), but it did not affect proportionality at all. The actual distortions to the proportionality between votes and seats arises from the electoral threshold, and the method in which a number of different bonus seats are awarded, including to representatives of Armenia’s four ethnic minorities. Let’s look at how the latest poll results would translate into seats:
· Civil Contract Party: 61 (58 + 3 ethnic minority seats)
· Armenia Alliance: 34 (33 + 1 ethnic minority seat)
· Prosperous Armenia Party: 10
· All Others: 0
The way ethnic minority bonus seats are awarded would dictate that the Civil Contract Party’s Yezidi, Assyrian and Kurdish candidates would get elected, and the Armenia Alliance’s Russian candidate would get elected (assuming they nominated one, otherwise they would lose the seat). In reality, it is a very unfair algorithm. Aleksey Sandikov, the current Russian-representative MP, would lose his seat purely because Russians happen to be the second-largest ethnic minority in Armenia, without factoring in his personal performance over the last 2.5 years at all, or the actual party preferences of Armenia’s ethnic Russian minority. In fact, it would be in his best interest for his party to finish second. Eliminating the open lists would have made it extremely easy to correct the “bonus seat” nature of the ethnic minority representatives that distorts the overall proportionality of the election results. However, the ruling government did not have the political will to change the formula, and it looks like Sandikov may end up paying the price.
Additionally, in 2018, the Way Out (Yelk) Alliance that included the Civil Contract Party, the Bright Armenia Party and Aram Sargsyan’s Republic Party (which is different from the RPA), had voted to lower the threshold from 5% to 4% for political parties and 7% to 6% for electoral alliances. That bill did not pass. On May 7, 2021, Bill C-894 was passed, with a slightly different philosophy. After January 1, 2022, meaning that it will not apply to the coming election, the threshold for political parties will be lowered to 4%, but the threshold for electoral alliances of two parties will be raised to 8% (to encourage more permanent party consolidation). Delaying this provision means that the Republic Party, a potential coalition partner for Civil Contract, may not enter parliament. With the latest poll numbers, the I’m Honored Alliance does not pass either the current or the future alliance threshold.
The False Majority Scenario
The seat projection arising from the poll is problematic in that it foresees a false majority scenario, where the Civil Contract Party receives 42% of the votes but is awarded 58% of the seats. False majorities are common in Canada and the United Kingdom, where the first-past-the-post electoral system is used in single-member districts, but more than two parties are competitive nationally. In Armenia’s history, the only time one party has won an outright majority of the votes cast in a parliamentary election was in 2018; all previous single-party parliamentary majorities were false majorities due to the distortions of the electoral system.
In 2021, such an outcome has the potential to deepen the ongoing political crisis that the election was supposed to solve. Nikol Pashinyan has resisted calls to step down by saying that “Only the people can remove me from office.” In the poll’s false majority scenario, 58% of Armenian voters would have cast their ballot against him, yet he could retain total control over the constitutional reins of power with a parliamentary majority.
One moral course of action in these circumstances would be for Pashinyan to step aside and let his political party hold its own leadership contest, keeping its majority and continuing to govern. The 61 projected Civil Contract MPs could come to a consensus on a new Prime Minister candidate among themselves, then vote in unison to install that person. To elect a Prime Minister, a majority of all MPs is required. If the parliament ends up consisting of 105 MPs, that is 53 votes in favor, meaning that total unanimity among the Civil Contract MPs would not be necessary; the Prime Minister candidate would still get elected even if up to eight of the Civil Contract MPs didn’t vote for that person. Accomplishing such a leadership transition would bring Armenia to a new level of democratic political maturity.
If Pashinyan maintains power through the false majority scenario, it will not solve the political crisis of his legitimacy, which was the point of holding an election in the aftermath of the 2020 Artsakh War.
Other Survey Questions
A majority, 65% of the poll’s respondents, agreed that it was necessary to hold the early election, compared to 31% who disagreed. However, they were less optimistic that the election would be “free and transparent”; 50% felt that it would not be, while 45% felt that it would. Interestingly, 53% of respondents reported that they did not vote in the 2018 parliamentary election. Officially, the 2018 election had a 48.6% turnout, compared to 60.8% in 2017, a difference of 315,000 fewer votes cast. One can only speculate about the reasons behind it. Most believe that it had to do with less pressure tactics (and vote bribes) used by the RPA in 2018, or potentially even a discontinuation of fraudulent activity. It will be interesting to see what the turnout figure will be in 2021, compared to the previous two. The poll shows that 74% of the respondents intend to vote this time. A breakdown of the party support for those not likely to vote was not provided, but the numbers seem to fit within those that responded “No one” or “Difficulty Answering.” Television and online sources, such as Facebook and news websites, were identified as the top sources of information for voters to learn about the parties’ platforms.
Regarding the ongoing border crisis, 56% of respondents disagreed with the statement “It is secure to live in Armenia,” while 40.7% agreed. Another question asked which entities Armenia can expect strategic-political support from, in relation to the incursions of the Azerbaijani military into Armenia’s Syunik and Gegharkunik regions. Multiple answers were allowed, and the results were as follows:
· Russia: 38.3%
· France: 31.3%
· U.S.: 23.8%
· UN Security Council: 11.4%
· CSTO: 7.2%
· Other: 12.9%
· Difficulty Answering: 5.2%
It is notable to mention that a group of 11 European ambassadors to Armenia made a fact-finding mission to the Black Lake area on May 20, 2021. On the same day, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the Armenian POWs still held in captivity by Azerbaijan, in which reference was made to the current border incursions.
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. It is notable that the conduct of elections and campaigning has evolved greatly over the last three decades. Documented cases of outright ballot-box stuffing have been relegated to the past, as new accountability measures like voter authentication devices (VADs), published scanned voter lists and videotaping most polling stations have brought a new level of transparency.
Since moving from a presidential to a parliamentary system with the 2015 constitution, the results of the 2017 and 2018 elections were not followed by street protests renouncing the results. So far, the June election looks to be one of the most competitive in the country’s history.
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 from the Soviet-era to the first decades of independence to the modern day.
Harout S. Manougian is an elections expert currently based in Yerevan. He is a former municipal politician from Toronto and holds a Master in Public Administration degree from Harvard University and a Master in Engineering degree from the University of Waterloo.