Armenian elections a further step in democratic direction

By bne IntelliNews May 6, 2012

Clare Nuttall in Belgrade -

Armenia's parliamentary election campaign ended with a bang May 4, when gas-filled balloons exploded at the ruling Republican Party of Armenia's final rally in Yerevan, injuring 114 supporters. The incident, two days before Armenians go to vote in the May 6 parliamentary elections, was a dramatic ending to what has been the country's most open and vibrant campaign to date.

Armenians are due to vote in the first nationwide poll since the deadly violence that followed the contested 2008 presidential election. The conduct of the election is seen as a test for President Serzh Sarksyan's commitment to bringing Armenia closer to democracy, while the outcome of the vote may result in a substantial change to the balance of power within the parliament.

Polls show tha Sarksyan's Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) is likely to lose its parliamentary majority, although together with its coalition partner Prosperous Armenia it is set to take over two-thirds of the vote, so the current coalition could be maintained. However, there are growing questions over the future relationship between the two parties.

An April 27 poll by Gallup International puts the RPA on 39% and Prosperous Armenia on 29.9%, while the Armenian National Congress, an opposition bloc of 18 parties led by former president Levon Ter-Petrossyan, is set to take around 12%. The RPA seems to have pulled away from its rivals in the final weeks of the campaign; an early April poll by Russian research centre VCIOM put the RPA on 38% and Prosperous Armenia on 35%. "Against the backdrop of increased voter activism, fairer campaigning and a split in the ruling coalition government, the upcoming vote is likely to bring an end to the absolute parliamentarian majority of the presidential party," writes Lilit Gevorgyan, Russia/CIS country analyst at IHS Global Insight. "If successful, the vote could serve as a model for the wider region for peaceful transition from the highly centralised political system to a more pluralistic political landscape with a more influential opposition in the parliament."

The durability of the current coalition, with the RPA, Prosperous Armenia and Orinats Yerkir, has been in question as the elections approach. Both the RPA and Prosperous Armenia have reached out to opposition leaders in recent months. However, the final days of the campaign saw Sarksyan making a public demonstration of support from the Prosperous Party, when he urged residents of Abovyan to vote for its leader Gagik Tsarukyan during a visit to the central Armenian town on May 2.

The result of the May 6 election is seen as a test case for the 2013 presidential election, but, equally important for Sarksyan, the completion of a peaceful general election under his rule would be an affirmation of his personal legitimacy, after his rule was tainted from the outset by allegations of fixing and vote rigging in the February 2008 presidential elections. Mass riots in Yerevan in the days after the election were put down by police, resulting in at least 10 deaths.

This violence cast a "long shadow on Sargsyan and his coalition government. Hence the upcoming election will be a test for his legitimacy and popularity ahead of 2013 presidential race," says Gevorgyan.

Since then, however, Sarksyan has sought to mend relations with Ter-Petrossyan and other opposition leaders, and his politics - in both style and substance - have increasingly diverged from his predecessor Robert Kocharyan. Sarksyan's decision to enter dialogue with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev and attempt to revive relations with Turkey were a clear break from the past.

Four years on, Sarksyan and his Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan have promised Armenia's cleanest, fairest elections ever, resulting in what the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) election monitors in Armenia, published on April 27, describes a "vibrant" campaign in the south Caucasus country.

The OSCE/ODIHR report does, however, list "instances of obstruction of campaign activities, including two violent scuffles in Yerevan". Although the run-up to the vote has been unprecedentedly open with, for example, free venues and poster space provided to rival candidates, there are still fears of old-style violations on election day if the word from the top has not completed filtered down to local activists.

So far the most criticism has been reserved for Prosperous Armenian, after opposition leaders complained that Multi Group, a holding company owned by Tsarukian, was distributing tractors to rural communities alongside the party's campaigners. "A business owned by the leader of Prosperous Armenia is distributing tractors in several provinces, de facto as part of the party's campaign," says the OSCE/ODIHR report. Under pressure from opposition parties, Tsarukian denied that the tractors were being given away and said it was not an attempt to buy votes.

Orinats Yerkir has also come under scrutiny in the last few days after reports surfaced in the Armenian press that the party had imported 100,000 mobile phones from Dubai to bribe voters. The party denies the report.

The OSCE/ODIHR report also points out that there have been several instances of the electoral code being violated, including campaigning in schools, and teachers and students being asked to attend RPA campaign events. Party political materials have been put up on municipal buildings and at polling stations.

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