Democracy In An Opposition-Less Parliament

While Armenia’s post-Velvet Parliamentary convocation completes its first full week in session, one question still remains unanswered: Who is the opposition? Of the three political factions represented in the National Assembly, “My Step” alliance alone forms the government. However, debate continues on whether the remaining parties, Bright Armenia (BA) and Prosperous Armenia, embody the ‘true’ opposition. These two parties were instrumental in Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s rise to power and have subsequently participated in his provisional government until the end of 2018.

Consequently, the make-up of the seventh National Assembly with no discernable opposition has lead to concerns over the viability of the country’s fledgling democracy. An ‘opposition-less’ parliament would lack the appropriate checks and balances to deal with a Prime Minister who might succumb to the temptations of power.

Though such disquietude does merit serious consideration, it’s worth pointing out that democracy is built on institutions, not mere parliamentary balancing acts. Before tackling this issue however, it is first necessary to properly discern who the opposition actually is.

In some parliamentary democracies, the role of an opposition party has become institutionalized. For instance, countries which follow Westminster parliamentary tradition, such as the United Kingdom, Canada or Australia, maintain an official position for the leader of the largest opposition party titled “Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition.” Other countries across Europe have also attempted to institutionalize the opposition’s role in governance through legislative measures or constitutional amendments.

Historically, no clear definition has ever been applied to the concept of an ‘official’ opposition, safe for a provision in Article 104 of Armenia’s 2015 Constitution which reserves one of the three positions of Deputy Speaker to the Opposition. Deputy Speakers, who preside over parliamentary sessions in the absence of the Speaker, actually wield considerable influence. They have the power to set the agenda, allocate speaking times, rule on points of order or even dismiss the session.

Seeing as Bright Armenia and Civil Contract (the dominant party in the ‘My Step’ government alliance) share a broadly liberal leaning and were allied until very recently under the banner of the YELQ parliamentary alliance, it’s easy to dismiss BA as another ‘controlled opposition.’ In practice, however, the two parties have been prone to squabbling.

Prosperous Armenia on the other hand has a dubious track record as an opposition party. They have traditionally supported the Republican Party of Armenia and have often been accused of posing as opposition to legitimize the Republicans’ quasi-authoritarian leadership style. The party is also not known for having any strong position on any issue.

In a sense, the ‘opposition question’ was officially solved last week when the ‘My Step’-controlled National Assembly voted to allocate the third Deputy-Speaker post to Prosperous Armenia, arguing that they formed the second-largest faction and therefore the main opposition party. Despite this, the Seventh National Assembly is set to be the most dynamic in decades.

During the RPA’s decade-long rule, the government rendered opposition inconsequential. Parties like Prosperous Armenia, or Rule of Law, which at various times served in coalition governments with the RPA, acted as ‘controlled opposition,’ further marginalizing any legitimate parliamentary opposition. Consequently, genuine opposition to the RPA’s steady eroding of democratic institutions developed outside the confines of the parliamentary chambers. The current government partially stems from this extra-parliamentary movement.  

With the results of the December 2018 parliamentary election, none of the parties currently represented existed before 2004. The once-dominant RPA was wiped out from the political map, as was Armenia’s oldest political party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF). The previous year’s election did away with former President Levon Ter-Petrossian’s Armenian National Congress, Raffi Hovannisian’s Heritage Party as well as the nominally-opposition Rule of Law party.

semantic debates on ‘real’ or ‘controlled’ opposition may be mute since the new leadership structure effectively operates as a de-facto National Unity Government.

In a sense, Armenia’s current political landscape echoes the realities which existed upon the country’s Independence from the Soviet Union 28 years prior. The incoming government was dealt a clean slate on which to build the foundations of a modern democratic state. Despite not sharing any ministerial portfolios, the three parliamentary factions agree on most major policy initiatives, such as anti-corruption, economic development strategies and so on. In the absence of any clear ideologically demarcating characteristics, they will likely be pressured to cooperate in order to achieve at least some of the promises made to the revolutionaries of May 2018. Due to this broad consensus, semantic debates on ‘real’ or ‘controlled’ opposition may be mute since the new leadership structure effectively operates as a de-facto National Unity Government.

The December 2018 parliamentary election draws many parallels to the presidential election of October 1991. Just as those who voted for Ter Petrosian in an effort to dismantle the legacy of Soviet institutions, those who handed Pashinyan’s ‘My Step’ a supermajority in the National Assembly were voicing their support for a break with the Republican past. They may not necessarily have been supporters of Pashinyan personally, nor should they be expected to remain loyal to him in the future. What mattered was respect for institutions. Since Armenia’s political life remains ‘pre-ideological,’ people voted for democracy in December 2018. Pashinyan happened to be the unifying symbol. For this reason, it actually makes sense that the only parties remaining in the National Assembly be broadly supportive of achieving the same initial goals: dismantling the structure of corruption, strengthening democratic institutions, establishing bona fide rule of law and jump-starting the country’s economy.

It is entirely possible that over the next five years, these three parties will develop genuine ideological differences which may sway the political discourse in one way or another. If, come subsequent elections, voters feel that Pashinyan has, like his predecessors, overstepped the bounds of his constitutional mandate, they may vote him out in favor of other alternatives. There is also no guarantee that members of the Prime Minister’s own My Step alliance, which includes a large number of ‘Independents,’ will necessarily toe the party line either.

Opposition plays a vital role in healthy democracies. As a counterweight, it keeps the government transparent and responsible to the electorate. It can criticize a government’s actions by closely examining draft amendments or the budget. So long as democratic institutions remain unmolested, freedom of the press continues unhindered, and most importantly, the electorate safeguards its rights to individual liberty and property, any government in Armenia will continue to derive its just powers from the consent of the governed.

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Raffi Elliott

Weekly Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-born entrepreneur and occasional journalist who likes to ramble on about socioeconomic and political issues in Armenia. He lives in Yerevan with his family. He also holds a masters degree in International Relations.
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3 Comments

  1. Very optimistic assessment, in my opinion. Time will tell. But remember the old adage: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    Pashinyan’s party has a super majority. Most of the “independent” MPs you allude to from his own party are political newbies and owe their ascendance entirely to Pashinyan (his supporters, old friends, his English tutor, his bodyguard, etc). This group is unlikely to ever oppose him. A pessimist may think that is the reason Pashinyan chose such a young and inexperienced group.

    BHK is too pragmatic and apolitical to actually oppose a governing party. Look at their track record.

    Bright Armenia is too small to make a difference, but will be an important source of criticism in the Parliament.

    That leaves the Civil Society, which is as vigilant as ever. But in a country with semi-authoritarian history until a few months ago, and a skillful orator at its helm, Civil Society is at the mercy of the rulers.

    With 5 years to go, a lot can change. Let’s just hope that today’s heroes do not become tomorrow’s villains. If history is any indication, we are in for a ride.

  2. This is not a criticism of the AW or Raffi.
    Pashinian’s My Step Alliance won the elections overwhelmingly. It’s done. It’s over. We all have to accept it. Lack of meaningful opposition is not new to the Armenian political reality. And attempts to foretell what this will mean is meaningless and premature at this stage until we see whether Pashinian will walk the talk or not.

    There are important developments that are not covered by the Armenian Weekly which
    are extremely relevant and important:
    a- Pashinian;s participation in Davos. His meetings with world business leaders and what that might mean for Armenia’s economical renewal and Armenia’s image on the world stage.
    b- Pashinian’s side meetings with the Azeri president and what that means to Artsakh.
    c- Pashinian’s letter to the ARF World Congress.

    If the AW does not have the resources to cover these important news/events, it can easily publish articles from Asbarez or Aztag (both are sister organs). I suspect few AW readers also follow these two newspapers that somehow have better coverage of events that interest Armenians in the US or diaspora.
    Just a proposal/suggestion.
    Vart Adjemian

  3. It will be a wise step to evaluate how the political authorities on the international arena, both once friendly and now critical (or not critical), view the new so-badly-called velvety revolution rather than joining hands in sharing responsibility. 51% majority rule and creating opposition of 49% is not democratic. On the other hand over 70% majority leads to demagogy or dictatorship and cannot be headlined as democratic.

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