By Judith Saryan
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—The National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) held a panel discussion entitled “The Armenian Parliamentary Elections in April, 2017: How can the Diaspora engage in Armenia’s Democratic Evolution” at Harvard University on Dec. 3. NAASR is a global center that connects scholars of Armenian studies with the public. In conjunction with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, NAASR holds regular forums to discuss contemporary topics of interest to Armenians around the world.
In this groundbreaking panel discussion, NAASR brought together the moderator Dr. Anna Ohanyan, the Richard B. Finnegan distinguished professor of political science and international relations at Stonehill College, with five distinguished panelists both from Armenia and the United States. These panelists included Professor Miguel E. Basanez, Director Judicial Reform Program, Tufts University Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, an expert on electoral practices and opinion polling in Mexico; John M. Evans, American diplomat and former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, via Skype from Armenia; Sona Ayvazyan, a founding member and Executive Director of Transparency International Anti-Corruption Center; Isabella Sargsyan, program director at the Eurasia Partnership Foundation and an international consultant on religious freedom issues; and Tevan Poghosyan, Armenian Member of Parliament and President of the International Center for Human Development.
The 25-year-old Republic of Armenia is facing political unrest due to issues of corruption, lack of economic growth, dissatisfaction with the current government, and concerns regarding the borders of Nagorno-Karabagh (NKR/Artsakh). In April, 2017 Armenia will hold its first parliamentary elections since the Constitutional reform referendum of December 2015 and will transition from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary one, strengthening the legislature at the expense of the presidency. The goal of the discussion at Harvard was to explain the Constitutional changes occurring in Armenia and to explore the role of the Diaspora in the political evolution of the country.
Professor Miguel Basanez spoke first about election fraud in Mexico and the impact that it had on Mexico’s democratic evolution. He noted the importance of opinion polling with an emphasis on how to improve the veracity of the responses. Professor Basanez played a central role in improving Mexican electoral practices that support democracy. After 71 years of the dominance of a single party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was defeated in the elections through the ballot box in 2000.
Elections that are free, fair, and transparent constitute the bedrock of any democracy. Around 84% of the respondents in Armenia answered that it is important for citizens to vote in elections, according to the Caucasus Barometer survey carried out by the Caucasus Research Resource Center in Armenia. Over the past 20 years, a new trend of authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries to rely on elections to legitimize their power has been significant. Elections are carried out, in democratic and most authoritarian states alike. However, fraudulent elections have emerged as the parallel trend. Electoral fraud erodes the basic trust between the government and the people; according to the Caucasus Barometer, only 5% of respondents in Armenia agreed with the statement that “most people can be trusted” and 30% thought that “you cannot be too careful.” The numbers for Georgia were slightly better.
Importantly, electoral fraud and the breakdown of trust can be powerful factors for producing instability and violence as occurred in Yerevan this past summer. In 2015 only 35% of the respondents thought that democracy is preferable to any other form of government, a decline from 57% in 2011. Another significant shift is that the number of people agreeing that people should participate in protest actions against the government in Armenia increased from 26% in 2011 to 46% in 2015. Regarding perceptions as to whether the most recent elections were conducted fairly, only 6% said yes in Armenia, versus 37% in Georgia.
This trend is alarming, and there are no quick fixes. However, the experience of Mexico and other countries demonstrate that there are ways to combat electoral fraud including to engage the Diaspora community and to strengthen election monitoring. Diaspora communities worldwide are increasingly active players for their home states in terms of remittances, promoting foreign direct investment, and in the political sphere. In terms of politics, 119 countries have external voting provisions, including Mexico, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Russia, among many others. Armenia’s dual citizenship law is very conservative, and requires in-country presence for a citizen to vote.
Against this backdrop, the possibility for Diasporic Armenians lacking citizenship to serve as election monitors in the upcoming parliamentary elections, is a step for civil participation and a mechanism for strengthening the bond between the Diaspora and Armenia. Isabella Sargsyan showed a bar chart demonstrating that voting results in polling places with election monitoring were significantly different and much less supportive of the dominant party than voting results in non-monitored precincts. The chart below shows the voting results of the Armenia, 2015 Constitutional Referendum in the Armavir region. The percentage of “yes” votes was dramatically lower in the polling precincts with foreign observers. (Sergey Shpilkin, analyst).
Dr. Ohanyan and other members of the panel emphasized that even with election monitors, there is no guarantee that the elections will be free of any tampering. They pointed out that the goal of free, fair and transparent elections is an ongoing challenge and will take time to achieve.
The elections are one piece of a much larger challenge to engage the Diaspora in the democratic evolution of Armenia according to former Ambassador John Evans. The Diaspora and Armenia have the potential mutually to develop the democratic structures necessary to propel Armenia forward.
The Citizen Observer Initiative is inviting volunteers from across the Diaspora to join volunteers in Armenia and be election observers for the Parliamentary Elections to be held on April 2, 2017. The aim of the initiative is to provide oversight of the voting process and prevent electoral violations and fraud.
To become an observer, the first step is to fill out the online registration from at: http://citizenobserver.am/observers/registration. Training and orientation will be provided by Citizen Observer Initiative.