Last Sunday, on the 2nd of April, about 60 percent of the Armenians voted in the parliamentary elections. Ruling Republican Party ((Hayastani Hanrapetakan Kusaktsutyun, HHK) of president Serzh Sarkisian won and is likely to gain an absolute majority in parliament, by winning at least 49,2% of the votes according to preliminary results. They will most likely seek a coalition with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutyun (ARF-D), which gained 6,7% of the vote. The HHK and ARF-D have also formed a coalition since the last elections, in 2012, when the party of president Sarkisian also won. Main opposition alliance led by billionaire Gagik Tsarukyan won about 27-28 % of the votes, and the Yelk (Way Out) Alliance about 7%. This leaves several parties and alliances, such as the Free Democrats Party, Armenian Renaissance Party, Communist Party of Armenia, Armenian National Congress-People’s Party of Armenia alliance and the Ohanyan-Raffi-Oskanian alliance without any seats in the parliament, as they were unable to reach the required 5 to 7% of the votes. Armenian elections follow a system of proportional representation. While several news outlets speak of slightly different percentages for the different parties and alliances, the overall result will stay the same.
Transforming to a parliamentary system
These are the last elections before Armenia changes from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. Furthermore the reforms mean that the prime minister will have more executive powers, the president in turn will get less power and a primarily ceremonial role under the new constitution. The system will be in place after current president Sarkisian ends his term in 2018. The change is following a controversial referendum on constitutional change held in December 2015, where the voter turnout was only 51 percent, barely enough to make the vote valid. According to several opposition parties this system-change is not to make the country more democratic, Armenia is one of the few post-Soviet countries that won’t have a presidential system anymore, but this system-change allows current president Sarkisian to stay in power in a different capacity. As he has repeatedly stated not to be tired of politics and wants to continue ‘keeping the Armenian people safe’, this seems no unlikely scenario.
Electoral code reforms
The elections were not only special as premise for the new system, but also by introducing the new Electoral Code, which was amended to prevent fraudulent practices during the elections under a historic deal reached between the opposition and the ruling party. It allowed the installation of 1500 webcams in the polling stations, as well as the introduction of electronic voter authentication devises with finger-print recognition software. The technical equipment was paid for by the European Union and the United States. There were some technical problems, including the devises being unable to even recognize the fingerprint of president Sarkisian. Also, online live streams of the webcams at the polling stations was unavailable during the morning. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had 300 election observers in place, and the Citizens Observer, an Armenian civil society organization and watchdog group had 3000 people who monitored the election. They both reported instances of vote buying, voter intimidation and presence of unauthorized persons in the voting stations. “There is little doubt that, since the last time the citizens of Armenia voted, efforts have been made, including through logistical improvements, to raise the quality of the electoral process. The authorities should be praised for working to inform the electorate of this new, quite complex, electoral legislation. It is a pity that, despite all of the legal and organizational changes, these elections did not remove long-standing doubts about the reliability and integrity of electoral processes in the country,” said Liliane Maury Pasquier, Head of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. “The use of new voting technologies cannot alone restore confidence in elections – crucial in a genuine democracy – just the same as better legislation is only effective if applied in good faith.”
Allegations of fraud
Almost all prior national elections in Armenia have been subject to allegations of fraud and protests, so irregularities like these are not unusual. Also this time, while not calling for street protests as after previous elections, (opposition) parties claimed the elections to be a fraud even before the last ballot was casted. Yet, the authorities have good reasons to address the allegations of fraud and for introducing the Electoral Code: they want to avoid mass street protests, which recently occurred in both Russia and Belarus, and want the Armenian population to consider these elections free and fair, because they have had experience with protests themselves. In the summer of 2016 a building was occupied by activists for two weeks, during which two police officers were killed. This led to the appointment of a new prime minister, and a re-branding process of the ruling Republican Party and Armenian politics in general. The president presented the reshuffling of the cabinet as a cabinet of ‘national consensus’, which would put the political elite back on line. The new prime minister Karen Karapetyan, a former mayor of Yerevan who has worked for GAZPROM and is not linked to the former cabinet, was the new energetic face that would lead to a boost. He was also the leader of the parliamentary campaign of the Republican Party. The HHK leadership has repeatedly stated that Karapetian will retain his post at least until Sarkisian completes his final presidential term in April 2018. Sarkisian has yet to clarify whether he will replace Karapetian after the end of his presidency.