National Assembly debating electoral reforms ahead of snap elections

National Assembly voting on electoral reform amendment, April 1

President Armen Sarkissian has announced that he will not sign part of an electoral reform bill adopted by the National Assembly of Armenia two months prior to the expected extraordinary parliamentary elections. 

On April 1 the National Assembly adopted a portion of Electoral Reform Bill C-894 amending the electoral code ahead of the expected June 20 elections. An initial version of Bill C-894 was designed in 2018 for the December snap elections, yet it failed to receive sufficient votes from the ruling Republican Party. Now, with snap elections on the horizon, the National Assembly is debating a comprehensive electoral reform package addressing the voting system, electoral thresholds, corruption and campaign transparency. 

According to a national survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) earlier this year, 74-percent of citizens believe that the Electoral Code of Armenia needs to be reformed. Levels of support for electoral reform were high among rural and urban residents, as well as among supporters and opponents of the current administration, indicating that support for electoral reform among the general population is widespread across partisan lines. 

The adopted amendment eliminates the open list component of the colloquially termed “ratingayin” system. Under the current system, the candidates of a political party compete against each other for votes; however, votes for individual candidates also count toward that party’s seats within parliament. The bill suggests a simple form of proportional representation in which parties present closed, rank-ordered lists of candidates and citizens vote for parties rather than individual candidates. 

In the IRI survey, 44-percent of respondents agreed with the statement that, for future National Assembly elections, people should vote for political parties only and have no opportunity to vote their favored candidate within that party, while 34-percent disagreed. 

The “ratingayin” system has been criticized for being esoteric, reflected in the general population’s lack of understanding of how the system operates. According to the IRI survey, 41-percent of the population is slightly familiar with the mechanisms by which the National Assembly is elected, while 32-percent is not at all familiar. Only 10-percent of respondents stated that they are extremely or very familiar. The system of proportional representation adopted by the National Assembly is simple and easier to comprehend than the open list form of voting. 

“This electoral system is very complicated for the public, taking into account the features of the electoral system, which have been proven to make elections more personalized and less focused on programs and political parties, distort the logic of the proportional electoral system and emphasize the principle of territorial representation,” said MP Hamazasp Danielyan, member of the My Step Faction and coordinator of the Working Group on Electoral Code Reforms.

The system has also been associated with corruption, since elections are personalized to the level of individual candidates seeking votes, opening the pathway to voter bribery. As recorded in the survey, 49-percent of participants believe that voter bribery was prevalent during the 2017 elections, while only 10-percent felt the same about the 2018 elections. 

While the amendment to reform the voting system was deliberated earlier this month to allow time for its implementation during the anticipated snap elections, the bill contains a much larger package of reforms addressing issues including electoral thresholds, campaign financing and corruption. 

Notably, the bill proposes lowering the electoral threshold from five-percent to four-percent. Parties that receive less votes than this minimum threshold do not receive any seats in parliament, unless they earn the second or third most votes overall. The bill simultaneously raises the threshold for electoral alliances to eight-percent for alliances of two parties, nine-percent for alliances of three parties, and 10-percent for alliances of four or more parties. This increase disincentivizes the formation of alliances during the election period, encouraging parties to compete with their own lists of candidates. If the bill becomes law, alliances will also have to include the names of all of their member parties in their titles. 

The bill also alters the mechanism by which parties are awarded seats in parliament. Currently, if one party receives more than two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, the competing parties that pass the minimum electoral threshold are awarded bonus seats so that the ruling party only represents a maximum of a two-thirds majority. Under the bill, in a similar scenario, the parties that did not pass the threshold are instead subjected to a lower two-percent threshold. Rather than award additional seats to minority parties, the number of parties in parliament is increased in order to preserve a two-thirds majority by the ruling party.

According to the IRI survey, the population is ambivalent on the issue of electoral thresholds, as 56-percent of respondents agreed and 31-percent disagreed with the statement that voting thresholds should be lowered so that more political parties can be represented in the National Assembly. 

The bill additionally tackles corruption by widening the scope of the types of campaign spending that must be reported. It also strengthens the penalties for violations of campaign finance laws and intimidation tactics against candidates from administrative to criminal charges. 73-percent of the survey participants noted that candidates running for elections must provide details on how they spend their campaign money. 

The bill eliminating the “ratingayin” system was submitted to the Office of the President for his signature on April 2nd. On April 17 President Sarkissian announced that he would not sign the bill into law because he believes deliberations would be taking place too close to the election date to allow sufficient time for in-depth discussion. However, he will not apply to the Constitutional Court either, because he did not record any constitutional violations within the bill. According to Article 129 of the Armenian Constitution, if the president fails to sign a bill within 21 days of its adoption by the National Assembly or apply to the Constitutional Court within that same period, the chairperson of the National Assembly will sign and promulgate the law within a five-day period. Thus the amendment can still become law with the signature of the President of the National Assembly Ararat Mirzoyan and without the signature of the president. 

The more comprehensive electoral reform package awaits its reading in the National Assembly. The bill in its entirety was submitted to the Venice Commission for the Council of Europe, and on April 7 the commission published its expert opinion and suggestions for alterations. 

The Supreme Council in Armenia of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) announced this week that it would participate in snap parliamentary elections. The Homeland Salvation Movement of which the ARF is a part has withheld its endorsement of early elections in the absence of the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. However, recognizing that it “remains of vital importance to remove the unpatriotic government” and that the elections will be “crucial for the preservation of our national identity and statehood,” the 24th Supreme Convention of the ARF resolved to participate in the extraordinary parliamentary elections, viewing them as “one of the means to oust the unpatriotic regime.” Decisions regarding the format of participation in elections will be entrusted to the Supreme Council. 

In addition to the ARF, the two opposition parliamentary parties, the Bright Armenia Party and the Prosperous Armenia Party, as well as the ruling My Step alliance and former president Robert Kocharyan have all declared their intention to participate in early elections. More than 40-percent of respondents in the IRI survey asserted that they would not vote for any of the political parties currently in the running, casting doubt on a high voter turnout come June and suggesting an opening for the formation of a new political party with broader appeal prior to the snap elections.

Lillian Avedian

Lillian Avedian

Lillian Avedian is the assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly. She reports on international women's rights, South Caucasus politics, and diasporic identity. Her writing has also been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Democracy in Exile, and Girls on Key Press. She holds master's degrees in journalism and Near Eastern studies from New York University.

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