On December 9, Armenia will have new parliamentary elections, in a totally new Armenia where it seems likely the corruption and election violations that scandalized former elections are now things of the past. Yet in spite of the positive developments, democracy in Armenia remains plagued by a dark cloud: a flawed electoral code left behind from ousted Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian.
On October 29th, legislation put forward by Pashinyan’s government to amend the electoral code failed to pass for a second time; this time with only one vote missing. Some days later, Armenia’s National Assembly failed to vote in a new Prime Minister for a second time, subsequently dissolving itself and forcing the country to have new elections. In one week, the Velvet Revolution was only able to meet one of its two promises/demands.
Most political parties agree the code needs significant amending, especially the controversial territorial rating system on closed party lists that political actors deem to be unfair. According to many critics, the ‘rating’ system allows a path for oligarchs to secure seats in Parliament.
Other components of the reform were to increase the quota for women, lower the minimum threshold for parties and alliances and amend the quota for ethnic minorities. Though work for reform has been done all summer and fall between the Parliamentary Working Group and Prime Minister’s Special Commission on Electoral Reform, it seems the issue came too early for Parliament to come to a consensus, alongside a bit of Republican Party-led sabotage.
Due to this missed opportunity or unfulfilled promise, Mikayel Nahapetyan, assistant to deputy-PM Tigran Avinyan, resigned from his position. His resignation indirectly put blame on the ruling government for not trying hard enough to push for such a key policy promise. While the government would like to blame the other parties in the National Assembly for the failure, they ultimately will not feel its hurt in the upcoming elections where they are expecting to get a majority of the votes.
Nahapetyan is also one of founders of the new Kaghaktsu Voroshum “Citizen’s Decision” Social-Democratic Party, which goes by the acronym SDPCD, which announced its official foundation on November 3 in Yerevan. The new party, driven by Social-Democratic norms, is pushing many different policy issues with social justice as a guiding pillar. Their founding membership at this point seems to comprise of Yerevan-based activists who never felt compelled to join any political party before the April Revolution, yet now feel compelled to take a proactive approach to the current political reality by filling in the ideological voids in Armenia’s political culture.
The SDPCD are especially pushing for social welfare policies directed toward improving the quality and access to education and health care, considering them basic needs that need to be met by the state. Transparency or direct democracy is an issue that they claim differentiates them from all other parties; for example, all party meetings will be open and recorded for members and non-members.
In terms of post-revolution transitional justice, they mainly emphasize a clean-up of the judicial system that aided the former government’s corrupt endeavors, but have a tolerant approach to all others who engaged in some form of illegal behavior under the auspices of the former ruling-Republican party. They emphasize the return of stolen capital back into the state budget, amnesty for those involved and eliminating businessmen from government structures.
Reform for the electoral code and the law on political parties are also policy issues that they emphasize, claiming that democratic processes cannot begin or be fair without them. Other political analysts and parties have also stressed the need for reform of the latter legislations. The Pashinyan-led revolutionary government has and currently vocalizes these policy points and attempts to enact them to varying degrees.
The SDPCD have not yet decided if they will participate in the upcoming elections due to certain legal procedures requiring approval by certain government bodies. However, they have two paths: either to strengthen and continue institutionalizing their new party, or attempt to enter parliament and continue the processes in parallel. Criticisms as to the redundancy of another Armenian party driven by social democracy were also immediately raised by journalists, with parallels drawn to existing parties, like the Social-Democratic Hnchakian Party and the statedly socialist Armenian Revolutionary Federation.
The young party, along with many others will face challenges entering the new Armenia’s National Assembly without the benefit of electoral code reforms. There are concerns that unwanted oligarchs will probably enter the Republican and/or Prosperous Armenia Party’s factions via the territorial rating system that currently exists.
The territorial ‘rating’ system is a separate localized component to a party national list where citizens can vote for local candidates. Firstly, the problems arise with the fact that each vote for a local candidate is also counted for their party’s national list. Second, up to six candidates are encouraged to compete throughout the 13 electoral districts. What has often happened is that the Republican Party has put forward multiple candidates in the same districts to compete against each other and as a result were able to garner significant amounts of votes for their party. In previous codes only one local candidate was able to be put forward in 41 electoral districts. It is not only essentially unfair but was specifically designed for the former ruling party to stay in perpetual power.
Considering that the new ideologically-driven parties like SDPCD and Sasna Tsrer, along with others, do not have enough time to strengthen their bases until next month’s election, they may not be able to pass the 5% threshold currently needed to enter Parliament. The other option is to enter a faction with a second or third party, raising the threshold to 7%.
The point was to do things the right way and fulfill the promises of the revolution. Those who pushed the revolution wanted a Parliamentary body that cultivated a healthy, ideologically diverse body politic to work and solve the country’s issues, void of corrupt feudal lords and oligarchs. Only time will tell if they get one.