A few concrete statements are in order to address the Yerevan Municipal elections of 2018. First, the newly-elected mayor, Hayk Marutyan, is not really relevant: those who voted for the My Step Alliance were not really voting for him or the My Step Alliance. Second, it was a foregone conclusion that the My Step Alliance would win, but the margin of victory surpassed both expectations and the body of polling that was conducted prior to the elections. And third, this election was not about Yerevan, the Council of Elders, or the Mayor: this election was about reifying Pashinyan’s dominance of the Armenian political universe.
In democratic elections, the concept of a landslide is proportional and mediated by comparisons between the competing electoral actors. Extremely lopsided victories are rare, since distribution of power, interests, and social factions are relatively well-dispersed. The electoral outcome of the Yerevan Municipal elections, then, is not simply a landslide, when the victor secures 81 percent of the vote, in a pool of 12 competing actors, while the runner-up (Prosperous Armenia Party, BHK/PAP) barely attains 7 percent, and the third place finisher (Luys Alliance) manages 5 percent.
Such a margin of victory in a democratic election is purely obscene: this was not a landslide, this was sheer and utter dominance of the political realm. Or, to put it in another way, this electoral outcome confirms one specific point: Nikol Pashinyan is the only political force in Armenian politics.
Multitude of factors, of course, explain both the context which brought about this electoral outcome, as well as the very nature of electoral politics in Armenian political culture. Considering the fact that Armenia is not a consolidated democracy, but is rather in the process of democratizing, this outcome, while impressive, is still understandable.
First, Armenia does not have institutionalized or consolidated political parties, and in this sense, the Armenian voter neither cares for the political party or the platform of that party. Thus, since party identity is irrelevant to the Armenian electorate, what explains their voting behavior? It’s quite simple: personalization. Armenian politics is heavily personalized, and within this context, the Yerevan voter was not voting for the mayoral candidate, his party, his ideas, or his platform. The Yerevan voter’s behavior was specifically defined by his or her admiration of Pashinyan. Second, due to the personalized nature of Armenian politics, the political lexicon frames political competition between individuals, as opposed to parties, ideas, policies, etc. Thus, the Yerevan voter was voting to consolidate an individual’s (Pashinyan’s) dominance of the political universe. Third, while the process of the election was highly democratic, the culture of the electoral process and the political discourse that shaped it was not so much. There was almost no cogent debate over policies, strategic planning, or the overall developmental proposals for Yerevan. Instead, we saw intense, personalized attacks between the candidates, attacks that were divorced from political discourse, and entrenched in ugly and childish vitriol about aesthetics, levels of masculinity, and combative threats that were not only déclassé, but beneath the dignity of democratic competition.
These simple assessments, then, bring us to one important development: the lack of sophistication in the voter produces a form of voting behavior that remains singular and uni-dimensional. And this is why the electoral outcome was a foregone conclusion. The unqualified adoration of Pashinyan has become the singular and uni-dimensional motivator for the Armenian voter. In this context, when Pashinyan embodies the party, the alliance, the platform, the ideas, the policies, that is, when he embodies anything and everything that makes up the political realm, it then becomes obvious why the margin of victory was so prolific.
While glorification of Pashinyan has become the new norm, a developing democracy cannot position itself, albeit unknowingly, in a trap where singular support for an extremely popular and democratic leader actually hampers democratic pluralism.
The considerations of this are two-fold. First, while glorification of Pashinyan has become the new norm, a developing democracy cannot position itself, albeit unknowingly, in a trap where singular support for an extremely popular and democratic leader actually hampers democratic pluralism. Second, while the first point is duly noted, at this stage, the Armenian voter is banking on this popular leader to transition the country into a consolidated democracy; once that is done, then the electorate can address the preferred level of pluralism. The discourse, then, is not about whether Armenia should have a pluralistic political field; that’s an obvious question that answers itself. The more complex question is if the political field, naturally and through the will of the electorate, becomes less conducive to pluralism. That remains the more intricate question.
The answer to such a question, however, is not one that can be answered by political leaders, regardless of how popular they are, but rather, it is one that must be addressed by an evolving political culture. The Armenian voter must become more sophisticated, the political parties and forces must become institutionalized, and political competition must no longer be personalized, but rather, be shaped by differences and compromises over policies and ideas. Is Pashinyan aware of this? Of course he is. However, he doesn’t have the luxury of addressing this, at this stage, since he is too busy transitioning Armenia into a consolidated democracy. And from Pashinyan’s lens, more than anything else, he needs the overwhelming mandate of the people, as a powerful political tool, to fortify the democratization process.
This narrative, then, brings us to another important point: the Armenian voter equates the strengthening of Pashinyan’s political power with the strengthening of Armenian democracy. Thus, while most political scientists and observers find unease with the growing power of a popular leader, to the average Armenian, this is not so much a problem, but more so, a necessity. The formula has become straightforward: a strong Pashinyan equals a stronger Armenian democracy. And this goes back to our initial discussion of the political realm being personalized—Pashinyan not only embodies the Velvet Revolution, he also embodies the entire process of Armenia’s democratization. For the Armenian voter, the demarcating line is blurred: the person and the process have become one and the same. What are the implications of this for the immediate future of Armenian politics, and more importantly, how will this effect snap parliamentary elections that will allow the democratization process to finalize itself?
While these forces competed with each other in the municipal election, they, nonetheless, remain united in their opposition to the RPA. Further, as their electoral performance showed, they are actually quite irrelevant as independent political forces when not aligned with Pashinyan. From an analytical standpoint, then, Pashinyan’s mandate against the RPA in forcing snap elections remains qualified by every single political development in the country.
For all means and purposes, Pashinyan framed the electoral outcome of the Yerevan Municipal elections as being a referendum on the potential and pending snap parliamentary elections. By demonstrating an unmatched scope of popular support that is now verified through an electoral process, Pashinyan has formulated for himself a second set of tools to push for snap elections: a verifiable mandate. Thus, between the informal mandate of being able to instantly garner hundreds and thousands of supporters to the streets, and this formal mandate of utter electoral dominance, Pashinyan now possesses a substantive tool in his arsenal to more intensely pressure the numerically-dominant Republican Party (RPA) in Parliament in forcing snap elections. Namely, if the RPA had doubts about the level and scope of Pashinyan’s popularity, considering the anecdotal assessments that filling up Republic Square is a misleading indicator, those have been profoundly squashed by a performance that garnered 81 percent of the vote. Further, fusing this with the votes attained by his Parliamentary partners—we have only noted the relative conflict between the mayoral candidates, failing to note that these political forces are actually allies in the National Assembly—the outcome is an even bigger mandate.
The Luys Alliance, for example, which is formed of Republic Party and Bright Armenia, are allies in the Pashinyan-led Yelk bloc in Parliament; if qualifying, in a theoretical sense, the total vote for Yelk as a bloc, that would reach the 86 percentile. Further, the Prosperous Armenia Party, which leads the Tsarukyan bloc in Parliament, is also a coalition partner with Yelk, and in this context, the 7 percent that they secured is an extension of Pashinyan’s mandate against the RPA. Thus, while these forces competed with each other in the municipal election, they, nonetheless, remain united in their opposition to the RPA. Further, as their electoral performance showed, they are actually quite irrelevant as independent political forces when not aligned with Pashinyan. From an analytical standpoint, then, Pashinyan’s mandate against the RPA in forcing snap elections remains qualified by every single political development in the country.
The more nuanced assessments that have been suggested in questioning the scope of Pashinyan’s mandate as an extension of this electoral outcome has been voter turnout. While I have not seen any direct assertions that Pashinyan’s mandate might be challenged or marginalized, there has been, however, some commentary on attempting to understand how, with a voter turnout of near 44 percent, one can speak of a broad mandate? While this remains a thought-provoking question, from the scope of political science, however, it suggests a healthy misunderstanding of both voter behavior as well as electoral participation.
Three important variables to take into consideration. First, as it has been extensively noted, the voter turnout of some 44 percent is actually higher than the 41 percent of the previous Yerevan Municipal elections. More importantly, however, observers are falsely equating municipal elections with national elections, thus presuming the same voter turnout. This, usually, is not tenable in democratic societies, because voter turnouts are almost always much lower in municipal and local elections than they are in national elections. In this context, to concentrate on the 44 percent without qualifying its municipal level obfuscates the analytical scope. Second, a flawed assessment has popped up that contends that if only 44 percent showed up, that means the remaining 56 percent might not give their mandate to Pashinyan, and as such, 81 percent electoral victory is misleading, when 56 percent of the eligible voting public did not participate. Not only is this assessment nonsensical, but it also indicates inept understanding of electoral politics. More specifically, it indicates lack of understanding between the concepts of apathy and complacency. In many democratic elections, for example, voter turnout is low due to apathy, a serious problem, for example, in American politics. Between indifference to political developments, and lack of care for the political system, many citizens in post-industrial liberal democracies don’t care to vote. This is the problem of voter apathy that explains low turnout. The insinuation or suggestion that voter turnout was at 44 percent in the Yerevan elections because of voter apathy is untenable. A society that undertook a mass public uprising to supplant a patronal political system cannot be apathetic; it makes neither conceptual nor empirical sense.
Voter turnout, then, is better explained by complacency; and complacency is far more common in instances of political or electoral victory, as the electorate feels relatively satisfied, and as such, remains complacent. In the case of the Yerevan elections, while survey data has not been produced on this, I am fairly confident that voter turnout at 44 percent is better explained by voter complacency. The logic of the complacent voter is straightforward: the political field satisfies my views, things are going quite well, and furthermore, I can sit this one out because the electoral outcome is going to be consistent with my expectations. As such, because most presumed that electoral victory for the My Step Alliance was a foregone conclusion, and this was consistent with their expectations, they remained complacent and did not participate. Complacency presumes that their candidate(s) of choice is going to win regardless of their participation, and as such, they do not participate due to satisfaction. And in the case of the Yerevan elections, there were no electoral threats to the Pashinyan-endorsed alliance, which re-confirmed the assumption that a victory was a foregone conclusion: without any serious competitors, the complacent voter remains very complacent.
[Pashinyan] definitely perceives himself, first and foremost, as a conduit between the common man and the corridors of power. That he relishes in his interactions with the people is thoroughly evident, and now that he also dominates the corridors of power, the common voters feels a strong sense of efficacy when voting for Pashinyan.
Taking into consideration the case of voter complacency, this brings us to our third point: not only does Pashinyan have a broad mandate, but he can further broaden his mandate by tapping into the 56 percent of the Yerevan electorate that did not participate. More specifically, since we are qualifying a healthy number of these nonparticipants as complacent, they remain ripe as an electoral field that can be harnessed come the parliamentary snap elections. Furthermore, to the complacent voter, there is a big difference between voting for a municipal alliance connected to Pashinyan and directly voting for a party list that is being actively led by Pashinyan. Of the 848,343 eligible voters in Yerevan, 370,323 cast their votes, of which 294,109 voted for the My Step Alliance. Collectively, there remains 478,020 eligible Yerevan voters that did not participate, an extraordinary pool that Pashinyan can very easily tap into for the parliamentary elections.
When observing the disaggregated data broken down by districts, the complacency discourse becomes even more consistent. The Kentron district, which is the most affluent and highest-educated, per capita, had a relatively low turnout at 42.83 percent, as did the affluent district of Arabkir, for example, at 43.36 percent. The prevailing research on electoral behavior consistently demonstrates high voter turnout in more affluent, higher-educated regions of the given electoral field. But in this instance, the more industrial districts of Yerevan, or those more toward the outskirts, actually had higher voter turnout then Kentron. This is clearly indicative of voter complacency, when the higher-educated, affluent sectors of society have lower turnout then the middle or lower sectors; in cases of apathy, for example, it is the opposite: the affluent perform highly, while the middle and lower classes refrain. In this context, Nubarashen, for example, had a higher turnout at 45.38 percent, as did Shengavit at 44.48 percent, both industrial, less-affluent districts of Yerevan. Rising suburbs of Yerevan also had higher turnouts than the affluent Kentron, with Davtashen at 46.92 percent and Avan at 46.49 percent. The analytical considerations here suggest that the 81 percent performance is quite healthy and should hold consistently if the voter turnout is higher.
Barring the formation of a new political party or political leaders that can miraculously challenge Pashinyan’s immense popularity, there is very little maneuvering room for other political forces in the electoral fields of Yerevan. Supplementing this general discourse is Pashinyan’s intrinsic talent of being an excellent campaigner, whether it revolves around motivating civic society, holding rallies, or organizing mass gatherings. He definitely perceives himself, first and foremost, as a conduit between the common man and the corridors of power. That he relishes in his interactions with the people is thoroughly evident, and now that he also dominates the corridors of power, the common voters feels a strong sense of efficacy when voting for Pashinyan. It is this unique ability to effect efficacy that empowers the personalized relationship between Pashinyan and the Armenian voter.
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