By Edmond Y. Azadian
The parliamentary election campaign is in full swing in Armenia. The ruling and the opposition parties, as well as the electorate, anticipate changes in the May 6 elections, each to justify its own expectations. The heat of the ongoing debates, shifting alliances and the news coverage are nary a blip on the diaspora’s radar, whereas for Armenians in the homeland, the elections will determine the future course of the country, its foreign policy, the prospects of the economy and the ratings of the elections by world organizations, which will in turn affect the quantity and quality of help Armenia may expect from the outside world.
Democratic elections are new for Armenia, and ever since independence, every election has come to be viewed as the measure of the country’s maturity in the democratic process.
The passive stance or indifference in the diaspora may be attributed to the complex nature of the political scene in Armenia, beginning with the real challenge of deciphering the acronyms of the political parties involved in order to understand their philosophies or political platforms and form an educated opinion on the overall situation. Also, shifting alliances make it even harder to follow the flow of news and the shape of the electoral campaign.
There are 131 seats in the parliament. Forty-one members are elect- ed through a majority vote, running on an individual basis. The remaining 90 seats are filled by deputies elected on party slates.
Since the last election, the ruling coalition comprised President Serge Sargisian’s Republican Party, Gagik Zaroukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party, Arthur Baghdassaryan’s Country of Laws Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) (Dashnag party). The latter split from the coalition and claimed to be in the opposition, which the radical opposition HAK (its acronym in Armenian, which translates into Armenian National Congress) never believed nor acknowledged.
The ARF and Raffi Hovannisian’s Heritage Party tried to maneuver at the last minute to amend the constitution and adopt one system of election — by party slates, a move that was defeated by the ruling coalition.
Today, during the current election, the major players are six parties: Republican, Prosperous Armenia, Land of Laws, ARF, HAK (Armenian National Congress) and the Heritage Party, recently reinforced by Free Democrats, which split from HAK.
As far as the ideologies of these parties are concerned, there are no clear-cut platforms. That is why a political analyst in Aravot Daily, Aram Aprahamian, defined those ideologies as “fuzzy.” Because those parties either pursue special interests or are based on a single oligarch’s wealth. He went on with his typical sarcasm to add: “The Republican party claims to be conservative nationalist imbued with our national hero Njdeh’s ideas. I can’t make heads nor tails.”
On the other hand, he found out that the Opposition HAK does not need any ideology per se until it “destroys” the current administration of “bandits” (per Levon Zourabian) and it replaces it with a “legitimate” rule; then it can begin to look for an ideology.
Prosperous Armenia represents its founders’ interests, namely oligarch Gagik Zaroukian, and it entertains one “fuzzy” goal of bringing back former President Robert Kocharian.
The Country of Laws (Orinatz) party does not have a political leg to stand on. Its leader, Arthur Baghdassaryan, managed last time to be appointed as the national security secretary by hanging on the coattails of the Republican Party.
The only party which exercises Western-style parliamentarianism, is Hovanissian’s Heritage Party, which counts eight members in the parliament, almost all of them professionals and intellectuals. They propose draft laws, they come up with innovative ideas and they stand up and fight for their positions diligently, regardless of whether they win or lose.
More recently, they projected an enhanced profile and there was also some talk to align with the Prosperous Armenia Party. But the party had a “marriage of convenience” with the ARF, as it lacks a broad-based, grassroots support and it intends to compensate that void with ARF’s grassroots. But they had an actual marriage with Free Democrats (most prominent among them former Foreign Minister Alik Arzoumanyan), whose godmother is believed to be the former US ambassador to Armenia Marie Yovanovitch.
During its recent convention, the Heritage Party released its platform where there is criticism to the extension of Armenia’s military pact with Russia; that already indicates where the party is coming from.
The Free Democrats split from Levon Ter-Petrosian’s Radical Opposition Group HAK, which lost some steam during the last few years. Some groups were disillusioned because Ter-Petrosian did not put his money where his mouth was; after delivering fiery speeches at rallies to “deconstruct” or to “dismantle” kleptocracy, he opted for a more moderate course and he even tried to enter into negotiations with the ruling coalition without any success. Other groups, like the Free Democrats, defected because they blamed HAK for having too much of an authoritarian decision-making process within the organization. And that was proven to be true when it was revealed that Ter- Petrosian will form the election slate single handedly. HAK is composed of 18 parties and associations; four of them have already decided not to be featured on the election slate.
One unsolved mystery keeps fueling speculations in the media: the relationship between coalition partners. Indeed the Republican Party and the Prosperous Armenia Party had signed an official pact to participate together in the elections. Some friction between them surfaced in recent months, encouraging different parties to woo the Prosperous Armenia Party. Even opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian extended the olive branch to Zaroukian, who, to this day, remains uncommitted and does not try to dispel rumors about the collapse of the coalition, on the other hand avoiding any bait extended to him.
Former President Robert Kocharian’s shadow looms behind the mystery.
The big question remains: is there an understanding, or a pact, between Presidents Kocharian and Serge Sargisian to swap positions during the next presidential elections, similar to the Putin-Medvedev pact which brought back Vladimir Putin to the presidential office? Or was there a commitment by President Sargisian to offer the office of the prime minister to Kocharian?
And if there were such agreements and President Sargisian has changed the rules of the game midstream, then rumors of frictions or conflicts between the coalition partners can be explained. Zaroukian’s group insists that Kocharian’s shadow must not be sought behind the party.
Some other media pundits believe that there is a ploy to air agreed disagreements between the parties to disorient the public and especially the opposition. Whatever the game or the mystery, it will come out during — or even before — the elections.
Pollsters predict that ARF may again pass the bar of 5 percent and send the same number of members to the parliament. The 5-percent ratio is also cited in the case of Armenian National Congress. That way the former President Levon Ter-Petrosian will have a more comfortable forum to deliver his lectures to his followers, rather than freezing them in Opera Square.
An election scenario emerges where almost all parties are set up against the ruling Republican Party, but they lack coordination to make an impact.
The profile in the next parliament predicts some chipping of power from the Republican Party. Once in the parliament, the opposition, in its turn, cannot continually threaten “to dismantle” the administration. The opposition has set its goal higher and believes that the upcoming parliamentary elections will also determine the outcome of next year’s presidential election.
Thus the road will be paved for the other parties to maneuver between the two blocks, somehow creating some checks and balances at the executive level.
Recently, a mayoral election took place in the city of Hrazdan, where the popular opposition candidate Sassoun Mikaelian lost by a narrow margin. He refused to contest the election results, and the European observers considered the election to be fair and democratic. That seems to have served as a weathervane for the upcoming parliamentary elections. This, of course, does not mean that bribing and ballot stuffing will be eliminated entirely, but they will be limited to a certain degree, and the games will be played in a more sophisticated manner. After all the starving electorate there expects such things to happen.
However, the president assured his audience during the Republican Party Convention that the government is planning to organize clean elections.
Even if far from perfection, Armenia is moving forward it its democratic exercise, albeit at a snail’s pace.