The two and a half year history of the First Republic of Armenia is mostly viewed in the sphere of the government's activity: military operations, state defense, social and health issues, and foreign policy. All these were realized by the prime ministers and members of the government. In 1918-1920, Armenia was a state with a parliamentary system of government, where political parties played a pivotal role. The electoral processes in Armenia at the time have had some remarkable episodes; in some cases, they parallel today's reality.
Following the declaration of independence on May 28, 1918, Armenia did not have an opportunity to immediately hold a parliamentary election; the unfinished war, famine, a complete blockade and instability took on a higher priority. As a transitional solution, it was decided to proportionally triple the composition of the Armenian National Council in Tbilisi to form the legislative body of the Republic of Armenia—the Parliament of Armenia.
The parliament had 46 deputies: 18 from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), six from the Social-Democrats, six from the Armenian Populist Party (APP) and six from the Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) Party. Two more deputies were non-partisan. Additionally, eight deputies, representing the national minorities living in the territory of Armenia, were also represented: six Tatars, one Russian and one Yezidi. The first chairman of the Parliament of Armenia was Avetik Sahakyan.
In the following months, it became evident that the Parliament did not fully reflect the domestic- foreign-oriented political attitudes of Armenia, and the decision was made to hold an election, which took place in June 1919. The seemingly ordinary political event reveals the many inter-Armenian contradictions that had developed over the years.
Among those issues were the geopolitical and cultural differences between the two segments of the Armenian people—the Western Armenians and Eastern Armenians—which were becoming more acute after the declaration of independence. As a result of the 1915 Armenian Genocide and subsequent events, masses of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire had sought refuge in Eastern Armenia. They had lost everything—relatives, homes, belongings—and had barely escaped to Transcaucasia with their lives. Despite charities and the public providing material and moral support to the displaced, nevertheless a social divide was forming. Following the declaration of independence, the Western Armenians were almost completely cut off from the social and political life of the country. They did not participate in the government, did not serve in the army and were not represented in Parliament. At the beginning of 1919, a Peace Conference was convened in Paris, where the Republic of Armenia sent a delegation headed by Avetis Aharonyan to present the Armenian Question. The Western Armenians, particularly those aligned with the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), believed that the delegation could not properly defend their cause, and so they supported the National Delegation headed by Boghos Nubar Pasha. In effect, two Armenian bodies with often significant disagreements were trying to defend the Armenian Question in Europe.
However, the main contradiction concerned Armenia itself. According to the Western Armenians, the Republic of Armenia that was created in Transcaucasia did not represent the entire Armenian people. They argued that the independent Armenia promised by the allies should be centered in Western Armenia, not in Transcaucasia; that was where the real Armenia was, where the Republic of Armenia was and that which was created on the left bank of the Araks River was called the “Ararat Republic” by Western Armenians.
“At the beginning of the existence of the Republic of Armenia, Western Armenians kept themselves isolated from state affairs. This expressed itself in many ways; there were relatively few Western Armenian officials in state institutions, Western Armenian youth avoided conscription. Western Armenians had reservations regarding other state obligations, and in general, they did not feel at ease within the republic. ... In Paris, the National Delegation headed by Boghos Pasha Nubar enjoyed a higher standing among Western Armenians than the government of the Republic of Armenia. The word ‘Republic of Armenia’ was not acceptable to many; what existed was simply the ‘Ararat Republic,’" writes ARF official Simon Vratsian.
In order to discuss the concerns of the Western Armenians and to work out a common position, the Second Congress of Western Armenians was convened in Yerevan in February 1919. The organizing group included Krikor Bulgarian, Varaztad Deroyan, Arsen Gidur and others. In a statement issued in January, the organizing committee of the congress noted that the displaced Armenians of Western Armenia are still unable to articulate and advance their goals and ideals, and to participate in their implementation: “Many have the right to speak on our behalf, but if any voice is to be heard in the fight for our just cause and the protection of our rights, that is our voice. The formulation and representation of our political ideals is being set before us right now, at this very moment. ...All our subsequent problems remain unrealized; now is the time for us to forget all of them, so that we can see the great problem of history that is set before us and must be resolved.”
The Second Congress of Western Armenians adopted a resolution declaring the independence of a Free and United Armenia. Point 2 of the resolution delegated to Boghos Nubar Pasha the authority to convene the first session of Free and United Armenia. Point 5 instructed the executive body of the Congress to declare the independence of United Armenia together with the Parliament and Government of the Ararat Republic, and to "participate in the existing state and legislative institutions to bring about the realization of a nationwide union."
The Congress, as is apparent, was not solving the problem of uniting the two Armenian poles. The Western Armenians continued to trust Boghos Nubar Pasha, although it seems they were also willing to cooperate with state bodies on more equal terms.
Calling the Election
There were also many contradictions within the Parliament of Armenia. The Armenian Populist Party (APP), the Social Democrats, and the Socialist-Revolutionaries (SR) were the main opposition, and they criticized the ARF for almost everything. On the evening of February 28, 1919, the citizens present in the Parliament hall started a commotion, expressing their protest against the efforts of the executive body. “As soon as the session was announced open, exclamations were heard from the public: ‘We do not want such a parliament,’ ‘We demand an elected parliament,’ ‘Self-proclaimed deputies be gone,’” the Zang newspaper wrote.
The Chairman of the Parliament refused to continue the session under these conditions. The Deputy Chairman Davit Zubyan, an SR, stepped into the role, but the citizens did not calm down. They physically pulled Zubyan down from the pulpit. The session was terminated.
The SRs blamed the ARF for the incident, saying that "after long fluctuations, the ARF finally showed its true colours… it had the courage to fight openly with the Socialist Party in Parliament." Of course, the Yerevan Committee of the ARF denied this accusation, but the incident once again demonstrated that the Parliament had completely exhausted itself.
On March 31, 1919, a new electoral law of the Republic of Armenia was adopted, which envisaged holding the forthcoming election. According to the law, the new Parliament of Armenia was to be elected by proportional representation using closed candidate lists. Secret balloting, still a relatively new concept at the time, would ensure citizens could vote their conscience. All citizens over the age of 20, both male and female, were given the right to vote (in the United States, the 19th amendment granting women’s suffrage had not yet been ratified at that point). The new Parliament was to have 80 deputies.
"Central, provincial, regional, municipal, rural and local election committees were set up to conduct the election. The central committee was appointed by the Parliament of Armenia, and the rest, by committees superior to them."
At the end of April 1919, the Parliament of Armenia suspended its work for a month, handing over its powers to the Government of Armenia. The electoral committee compiled the schedule of the preparatory period for the election, according to which the final lists of voters would be published by May 12, and the final lists of candidates by May 22. The government allocated 200,000 rubles to the electoral committee to organize these events.
The Armenian parliament, which was a temporary institution, voted for and adopted the electoral law on the composition of the parliament in its final sessions. Simultaneously, it decided the day of the election—June 21—and appointed S. Khachatryan to be the chairman of the Central Electoral Committee.
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 to the modern day.
The May 28 Act and the Social Divide
In April 1919, it was decided to celebrate the anniversary of the proclamation of the independence of the Republic of Armenia with great pomp and circumstance. At the same time, a special statement was to be adopted on May 28, which was to clarify the government's position on Armenia's independence and satisfy the concerns of Western Armenians.
On May 27, 1919, the government decided to convene a special session on May 28, which was to be attended by parliamentary deputies and the 12 members of the Executive Body established at the Second Congress of Western Armenians. On Independence Day, following the solemn ceremony, Prime Minister Alexander Khatisyan read the statement known as the "May 28 Act." With this declaration, the Armenian government announced that it was committed to protecting the interests of a united, independent Armenia, including Western Armenia:
"Now, by carrying out this Act of unification and independence of ancestral Armenian territory located in Transcaucasia and within the borders of the Ottoman Empire, the Government of Armenia declares that it is the government of the United Republic of Armenia."
Following the announcement, the 12 members of the Western Armenian Executive Body sat next to the parliamentary deputies of Armenia in solidarity.
Although Simon Vratsian writes that the unification ceremony “was greeted with enthusiastic applause by the public,” in reality, it caused deep dissatisfaction for some political forces and further divided society. It would also influence the course of the parliamentary election.
On June 4, 1919, the Assembly convened its last session, where the Social Democrats criticized the ARF, and called the May 28 Act a coup d’état against parliament. According to them, by May 28, the term of office given by the parliament to the Government had already expired, and that the Government did not have the authority to make the declaration. The Social Democrats declared that the government "propped up by the ARF, is dictatorial, does not respect the laws, acts against the constitutional spirit." In demonstration, they then left the hall. As they shuffled out, mocking exclamations of “bon voyage” were heard from the hall.
Next, the Armenian Populist Party made a statement in the Assembly, also referring to the May 28 Act and the entry of 12 Western Armenian deputies into the parliament as a "coup d’état, a constitutional violation, a big blow to the constitution." The APP stated that only the mixed session of the Armenian Conference in Paris and the Armenian Parliament had the right to adopt such a declaration. In protest, the APP recalled its ministers from the Government, left the hall and announced that it will not participate in the parliamentary election.
Simon Vratsian writes that, on the day of the declaration of Independence, the Zhoghovurd newspaper of the Armenian Populist Party was excitedly writing "Long Live United, Independent and Free Armenia," but just a few days later, they had changed their position. According to him, during the May celebrations, Samson Harutyunyan, a member of the Armenian Populist Party, was not in Yerevan. Once he returned, the position of the party changed dramatically. "It soon became known that the Populists’ move was dictated from Paris," writes Vratsian.
In Tbilisi, the Armenian Populist Party newspaper The People's Voice published a statement on June 11, entitled "We are complaining, listen." It clarifies why the Populist Party decided to boycott the parliamentary election. This text, written on behalf of the Western Armenians, referred in detail to the events of 1917-1919 and condemned the "incompetence and short-sightedness" of the ARF. At the same time, they expressed hope that the Armenian Populist Party would reconsider and clarify its position on the events taking place in Armenia and the May 28 Act.
"According to the slogan of the May 28 Act, you must form an interim joint government for a united and independent Armenia. To this end, the Government of the Caucasian Armenia should immediately enter into negotiations with the delegation of Boghos Nubar and form a joint interim government and parliament by mutual agreement, to which it will hand over the right to conduct current affairs, until the people of United Armenia have the opportunity to establish their legitimate government,” the newspaper wrote.
The ARF rejected the proposal to form a joint government with the National Delegation headed by Boghos Nubar. Subsequently, in early June, the APP announced its protest and exited the coalition. APP ministers also left the Government. On June 8, 1919, Zhoghovurd reported that the APP would not run in the parliamentary election, urging residents to also boycott the election by refusing to vote.
"Citizens, do not participate in the upcoming parliamentary election, thus expressing your fervent protest against the ARF’s May 28 Act, which dealt a severe blow to the principles of law and popular representation. ‘Long live Free and United Armenia! Long live parliamentarianism! Down with the Dashnak oligarchy!" the newspaper wrote.
Some Western Armenians were also dissatisfied with the May 28 Act and the admission of the 12 members of the Executive Body into the parliament. The problem was that, following the February Congress, the issue of the participation of Western Armenians in the parliamentary election was discussed many times, and they had almost always come to the conclusion that they do not represent all Western Armenians. The 12 members of the Executive Body were charged with serious accusations. On June 12, 1919, the Van-Tosp newspaper called them "parasites," writing that the Executive Body did not want to hear the people's complaints and "applied to this parliament to also be given a warm corner." For several days "Down with the 12 Turkish-Armenian parasites that entered the parliament" was printed in big letters in the pages of Van-Tosp. Soon, the Ramkavars and a number of Western Armenian organizations joined the call to protest the parliamentary election.
In effect, the Second Congress of the Western Armenians and the May 28 Act failed to unite society, and to some extent also deepened the chasm.
“The House of Blabbermouths”
When talking about the parliamentary election of 1919, it is probably worth mentioning how Armenian society in general accepted the notion of a parliament. It must be said that the activity of the legislator was not well understood by the public; the deputies often became the subject of ridicule. Ruben Ter-Minasyan writes that the people called the parliament “The House of Blabbermouths” (zavzakanots), noting that the reason for this contempt was not the backwardness of the people. The problem was that the Armenian legislators were imitating the work style of European countries, which often did not correspond to the Armenian reality.
"It imitated the customs and laws of advanced countries, and would be satisfied by that, because the mediocre forces did not allow them to go deeper, to search whether those laws would come from the people's spirit and traditions, would correspond to the time, place and conditions. And often those very beautiful laws would remain incomprehensible and inaccessible, just written on paper. … Even from the pulpit of the parliament, many responsible individuals, such as the members of the Bureau, would suggest: ‘Burn those rotten laws of yours, destroy the legislative books and establish revolutionary law,’" Ter-Minasyan wrote.
The Armenian Populist Party could have been the main opponent of the ARF in the election. The Bolsheviks, the Social Democrats, the SRs and other parties in Armenia did not have an electorate that could compete with the ARF. Some experts explain the position of the APP to not participate in the election with the realization that they would get very few votes. Historian Richard Hovhannisian agrees with Vratsian's view that the APP’s boycott was conditioned by the influence of "Paris." He writes that, on June 13, Boghos Nubar sent a telegram to Catholicos Gevorg V, in which he said that he accepted the right of the Yerevan government to hold local and regional elections, but "rejects the legitimacy of the parliamentary election of all of Armenia."
"Boghos Nubar advised the Western Armenian residents of the Republic that their participation in the elections ‘would not be appropriate’ and that they should abstain from elections. It is quite possible that Nubar's opposition to the general elections in Armenia had played a decisive role in the [Populists’] belated decision to withdraw from the election campaign,” writes Hovhannisian. According to the historian, the boycott of the APP was harmful, as they were the only liberal, non-socialist party.
The pre-election campaign was mainly based on the agenda put forward by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaks), where solving social problems was the main priority. They advanced a few main slogans: "A United and Independent Armenia," "All power to the working people," "Land for the worker," "Jobs for the unemployed," and "Bread for the people."
Unlike the APP and the Social Democrats, the Armenian SRs decided to run in the election. They were also critical of the ARF and also emphasized social issues. The SRs stated that, after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the ARF that "spoke in terms of socialism" promised to carry out land reforms, "but so far no practical steps have been taken in that direction." The SRs called on the population to actively go to the polls and vote for their party. "The Socialist-Revolutionary Party is fighting relentlessly against all those elements that lead the people to destruction with their actions. Today, with sobriety, and experienced by examples of the past, the working class will give its vote of confidence to list No 3 of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, which equally protects the interests of all the oppressed masses, and has made the noble idea of the solidarity of the people the cornerstone of its foreign policy,” wrote the Socialist-Revolutionary newspaper on June 22, 1919. [Voting lasted three days from June 21 to June 23.]
Thus, the following parties/lists were registered for the parliamentary election:
N 1 - Armenian Revolutionary Federation, 120 candidates
N 2 - Armenian Populist Party, 65 candidates
N 3 - Socialist-Revolutionaries (SR) Party, 35 candidates
N 4 - Kurdish list, 2 candidates
N 5 - List of Assyrian National Council, 3 candidates
N 6 - List of non-partisan Peasants’ Union, 18 candidates
N 7 - Muslims List
The election took place from June 21 to June 23, 1919; the result were as follows:
Armenian Revolutionary Federation: 230,271 votes (72 MPs)
Socialist Revolutionaries: 13,239 votes (4 MPs)
Muslims List: 8,187 votes (3 MPs)
Peasants’ Union: 4,224 votes (1 MP)
Kurdish List: 1,305 votes (no MPs)
Armenian Populist Party: 481 votes (no MPs)
Assyrian National Council: 173 votes (no MPs)
There was no set minimum electoral threshold, but with only 80 seats in total, a list needed at least 1.25% of the vote to gain a seat.
On June 28, 1919, the Armenia’s Laborer newspaper, the ARF organ for the central and local committees of Yerevan, wrote that the "people's will" had prevailed and the Armenian people, in spite of “all the caws of black, white and red crows, realize who is their friend and foe.” The Laborer went even further, noting that the enemies do not stop at anything to discredit the ARF, even "at the expense of the destruction of the Armenian state, at the expense of the destruction of Independent Armenia," however "they will see their nape, but not the realization of their dirty goal."
For their part, the opposition wrote that the election was rigged, and that no one cares about the people of Armenia. The title of the July 27, 1919 editorial of the People's Voice newspaper was "Flour Election"—hinting that people were given flour and other provisions during the election, without which the ARF could not have won: “Had these elections been truly parliamentary and not ‘flour’ elections, we would have seen just how many seats our ‘nation-destroying saviors’ would win in the Armenian parliament."
The June 1919 election was the only one in the history of the First Republic between 1918-1920. The parliament it elected continued its activity until the Bolshevik takeover in December 1920, in the aftermath of the Turkish-Armenian War.
The archival documents used in this article are courtesy of the Republic of Armenia's National Archives.