Armenian voters face poverty of choice

Armenian voters face poverty of choice
Riot police and soldiers occupy Freedom Square after deadly clashes between protesters and government forces following the 2008 presidential election. Armenia has a history of electoral violence.
By bne IntelliNews March 31, 2017

Armenians will head to the polls to elect a new parliament on April 2. The ballot has added significance given that it will mark the shift from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system of governance, meaning that the legislative body will be more powerful than it has ever been since Armenia achieved its independence in 1991.

Despite the high stakes, Armenians won’t have many options in the privacy of the polling booth. The two leading parties in the opinion polls - the ruling Republican Party (HHK) and the main opposition party, Prosperous Armenia - both pose a threat to stability and economic growth, the most serious grievance in the impoverished nation of 3mn. 

Having been in power since the late 1990s, the HHK has decided to run alone this year, without its former partners the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) or the Renaissance Party. According to Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Centre think tank, the decision to do so was either a display of false bravado or dangerous over-confidence. This is particularly the case seeing as HHK has run a lacklustre campaign based on promises rather than past accomplishments - something that voters might not have expected from a party that has been in power for almost two decades. 

Public’s patience has run out

Running an electoral campaign based on pledges requires a certain level of political trust and public confidence, Giragosian adds, two things which are simply absent in Armenia. If anything, the last two years are indicative of the fact that the Armenian public's patience has run out. Protests in the summers of 2015 and 2016, kindled by ostensibly isolated events like an electricity price hike and an attack against a police station, gathered momentum and became widespread demonstrations against government corruption and mismanagement of foreign policy and investment. In July 2016, demonstrators called for President Serzh Sargsyan, HHK's 62-year-old chairman, to step down.  

An internally divided HHK has sought to placate popular discontent by appointing new faces at its helm to at least mimic the idea that the government is addressing popular discontent. But Sargsyan did not step down. Instead, he fired Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan in September, and appointed a technocrat in his place, former Gazprom manager Karen Karapetyan, who has embarked on a reform agenda to clean up graft. 

Despite Karapetyan's verve and proactivity in righting the country's wrongs and attracting foreign investment, Armenians remain circumspect when it comes to the ruling party. A questionable - but rare - recent opinion poll by Russian pollster VTsIOm showed HHK lagging one percentage point behind its main rival, the Prosperous Armenia party, in voter preferences. 

“Makes Trump look like an ascetic”

But a Prosperous Armenia government would also be unlikely to bring the stability, transparency and economic growth that Armenians crave. Its leader Gagik Tsarukyan is a former wrestling champion and popular business tycoon with a penchant for exaggeration. He has been compared to Donald Trump, partly for his lavish lifestyle, with a leaked 2006 US State Department cable stating: “Tsarukyan has a personal style which would make Donald Trump look like an ascetic”. Under Tsarukyan, the leading opposition party has run a campaign aimed at discrediting and one-upping the HHK. 

Yet while Tsarukyan's country-boy-cum-tycoon persona may have won him some sympathy from voters, it is unlikely that his party would bring about much-needed change.  Just like the HHK, Prosperous Armenia is criticised for displaying a poverty of policy ideas during the month-long electoral campaign, a sign that a government formed by the party would likely mean more of the same for Armenians. Not a cheering prospect given that Armenia, heavily dependent on Russia for aid and investment, has been hard hit in the past three years by an economic downturn, with growth falling to 0.2% last year from 3% in 2015.

Giragosian also points out that Tsarukyan's ties with former President Robert Kocharian, Sargsyan's adversary, and his connections to Moscow would pose a threat to stability and security. 

Unlike the HHK, Prosperous Armenia will be running as part of a coalition of three parties. Pundits expect it to come second after the HHK. The remaining four parties and three blocs in the race are unlikely to meet the minimum threshold of 5% and 7% of votes respectively to make it into the 131-seat national assembly. 

Some analysts, though, believe surprise developments cannot be excluded. One new alliance, Ohanian-Raffi-Oskanian (ORO) - which takes the names of the two former foreign affairs ministers and a former defence minister who formed it - is said to be giving the government some jitters. Though its orientation is by no means ideologically clear, ORO has hit out at the HHK while making eyes at Tsarukyan.

Renowned for electoral violence

Deepening levels of discontent and dissent have made the pre-election atmosphere unusually tense, cause for concern in a country with a long history of electoral violence. In March 2008, 10 people died when government forces violently suppressed post-election demonstrations in protest at a result that many considered stolen. This time around, some 2,300 independent observers have registered to monitor the election and, given the recent street protests in Russia and Belarus, the Armenian government will be rather wary of mass street protests breaking out.

Giragosian forecasts that given the improved voting technology and greater numbers of election observers, the actual conduct of the poll itself - the first under the new proportional electoral system - is expected to be demonstrably better than previous elections. This is vital for Armenia, where previous elections have been tainted by serious voting irregularities and voter fraud.

However, he adds that “even a ‘cleaner’, improved voting process is not guaranteed, especially as for most Armenian election officials their only experience is with ‘fixing’ or ‘rigging’ a ballot, and not necessarily with enforcing a lawful and orderly vote.”

Armenians, Giragosian observes, will face the contradiction between a “more free” yet “less fair” election, which emanates from the natural advantage of incumbency. “Through what has become known as ‘administrative resources’, the state is able to exert pressure on civil servants, such as school teachers and hospital workers, and the army, among others, to coerce voters in its favour. While such an advantage from incumbency is natural for any incumbent government, it is the abuse of such ‘administrative resources’ that makes this such an egregious violation,” he adds.

In its March 17 interim report ahead of the election, the OSCE/ODIHR observation mission says there have already been widespread allegations about vote-buying. “There is also a prevalent perception that pressure and intimidation will occur during the campaign, including through the abuse of state resources,” the report says. 

On March 25 the pro-democracy Union of Informed Citizens revealed the results of an investigation into how, in a clear breach of electoral legislation, more than a hundred school and kindergarten headmasters had been working for the HHK. Representing themselves as HHK campaigners, the NGO’s staff phoned headmasters, who then bragged of their success in recruiting students’ parents to vote for the HHK. However, despite the media outcry generated by the revelations, many Armenians can be expected to shrug at behaviour pretty much considered as commonplace. 

Yet the risk of post-election violence remains real, warns Giragosian, especially as neither the government nor the opposition recognises the risk of post-election unrest.“The question for Armenia is no longer whether the election will be yet another ‘missed opportunity’ for democratic change through the ballot box. Rather, the real test will not be the conduct of election day itself, but will come the day after the vote.”

“As the government’s rather arrogant over-confidence may blind it to the looming risk, the opposition’s failure to see the danger also prevents it from playing a helpful role to diffuse any crisis or violent unrest,” he concludes. “Thus, this approaching election now stands as a watershed moment for Armenia, with the future of the country and the outlook for stability in the balance.”