2012 Armenian Parliamentary Elections: (1) The Context

Armenia goes to the polls on 6th May to elect a new National Assembly (Parliament). Since regaining its independence in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR there have been several parliamentary and presidential elections in the country, but many agree that this election will define Armenia’s future in a way that none of the others have,  and the stakes are high for all concerned.

Armenia feels itself beleaguered, and its politics reflects this. Its’ historical problems with Turkey, its’ war with Azerbaijan which has not yet finished, its’ reliance on Russia, its’ proximity to Iran, its’ frequent frustrations with its neighbour Georgia, and the specificity of the large number of Armenians in the diaspora who claim a stake in its decision making, make this a difficult country to run. Politics in Armenia is not for the meek. Black PR is a tool of choice of many political actors, and violence is never far from the surface. The assassination of the Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament and other senior politicians in the Armenian parliament in 1999 remains a dark chapter in the country’s recent political history. Since 2008 the country has struggled to manage the fall out from the global economic downturn and has had to receive substantial economic assistance from Russia, the international financial institutions and Europe in order to avoid economic melt down.

Armenia has had three Presidents since 1991. The first one, Levon Ter Petrosyan was forced to resign in 1997 after having made some progress towards resolving the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, on terms that were unacceptable to the mainstream of the military elite. The second President, Robert Kocharian, took over in those circumstances. The former strong man of Karabakh, he had all the credentials needed to solve the conflict, but didn’t. However he bowed out graciously when his two terms came to an end in 2008.

The third and current President, Serzh Sargsyan, started as a Kocharian protegee, but has grown into the job since becoming President.

His election was marred by accusations of fraud and street violence which left ten people dead. Ever since Armenian politics has been in something of a limbo. The current elections offer the possibility for an end to that situation, and for a renewal of the country’s political culture.

The voters have a good choice. Eight parties and one party bloc were registered for the proportional component of the elections, and 155 candidates were registered in the 41 single-mandate constituencies under the majoritarian component. Some 237 of all registered candidates (about 20 per cent) are women. Whilst there is a clear government and opposition divide, within these two large forces the voters also have a choice between different parties.

As in the other South Caucasus countries elections in Armenia have been marred by irregularities and claims of fraud. Many feel that this time round it is simply not possible to have a repetition of the same. The opposition, which already feels it has been cheated in the 2008 Presidential elections, consider this the final chance for the system to redeem itself. A similar view is taken by western countries who have given a clear signal to the Armenian government that future relations will depend on the conduct of these elections. The government has taken the hint and accepted the challenge. It is trying hard to win the election without the need for fraud, deploying its best people on the election campaign and trying hard to put its message across to the electorate. The next few weeks will show to what extent they will be true to their words. There is a good chance that they will, but equally there is a chance that at the last moment they will lose their cool and revert to the old habits.

The international community will be watching. A mission from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, deployed a few weeks ago and has already published its first interim report. The mission is headed by Radmila Šekerinska. She is supported by a Core team of 13 staff from 12 participating States. ODIHR is deploying 24 long-term observers throughout the country and they are expected to be joined on election day by 250 short-term observers.

The ODIHR Election Observation Mission, in its first interim report published on 5 April, (available here ),  notes that a new Electoral Code was adopted in May 2011. The Code was assessed as comprehensive and generally providing a solid framework for the conduct of democratic elections, but there are still areas where it could benefit from improvement. The elections will be administered by the Central Election Commission (CEC), 41 Territorial Election Commissions, and 1,982 Precinct Election Commissions. The CEC is active in making preparations for the elections, meeting legal deadlines.

The number of registered voters is around 2.5 million. Voters are able to check their records in the voter list, including on the internet, and to request inclusion and corrections to it. Several OSCE/ODIHR EOM interlocutors have raised concerns about the quality of the voter list, which according to the authorities is continuously improving.

Russia has a special relationship with Armenia, based on historical ties and the reality of the present day situation which leaves Armenia heavily dependant on Russian political, military and economic support. Russia would like to see the forces around president Serzh Sargsyan emerge victorious in this election, but undertands that direct interference will be counterproductive. The Americans and the Europeans are happy to work with whoever emerges victorious but are keen to see a clean electoral process. It is therefore up to the Armenians themselves to make this election a success.

This is the first in a series of briefings on the 2012 Parliamentary Elections in Armenia prepared by LINKS analysis. This article may be quoted and/or reproduced in part or full as long as a clear attribution to the source is included with a reference to this website.

source: LINKS Analysis (c)