Commentary: Reflections on Elections

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

Our readers would rightfully expect us to focus in the first place on parliamentary elections held in Armenia on May 6. However, it is also worth reflecting on other elections held the same day in Europe because they may also have a bearing on Armenian issues, directly or indirectly. Thus, presidential elections took place in Serbia and France, and dramatic parliamentary elections took place in Greece.

In Serbia, the incumbent liberal president, Boris Tadic, seems to be 1 percentage point ahead of his ex-nationalist rival, Tomislav Nikolic, who is less than sanguine with Serbia’s prospects of join- ing the European Union; he would rather cooperate with Russia. On the other hand, Mr. Tadic has been the main architect of Serbia’s rapprochement with the EU. His negotiations resulted in Serbia’s candidacy to the EU last March.

Greek parliamentary elections may have far more significance on Turkey’s potential membership to the European Union. Since last November, Greece was run by an uneasy coalition of the center-right New Democracy Party and the center-left Pasok, or Socialist Party. They negotiated a bailout with the European Central Bank, against a very unpopular austerity plan, which they strong-armed through parliament. Violent social unrest erupted and finally both parties were marginalized in last Sunday’s parliamentary elections. New Democracy won 20 percent of the votes, down from 33.5 percent in 2009, and Pasok ranked third with 13.8 percent, down from 43.9 percent. The left-wing coalition, Syriza, took the second place with 16.6 percent. Now it is up to minor parties to form a coalition government to renegotiate the austerity plan rejected by the Greek electorate with the European Central Bank. Should that coalition fail to renegotiate the plan, Greece faces the prospect of being ousted from the European Union, eliminating one more hurdle from Turkey’s race to join the EU.

Another presidential race closely watched by Armenians in the homeland and the diaspora took place in France when Socialist contender Francois Hollande was facing conservative (UMP) incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

With 80-percent voter turnout, Mr. Hollande garnered 52 per- cent of the votes over Sarkozy’s 47 percent. The kingmaker was the leader of the extreme right-wing party, Front National, Marine Le Pen, who had won 16 percent of the votes during the first round. Sarkozy was hoping against hope that Le Pen would send the conservatives to his rescue, but like Ralph Nader did in 2000, “Le Pen dropped the guillotine on Sarkozy,” as described by Maureen Dowd of the New York Times.

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Francois Hollande has promised some domestic social reforms (hiring 60,000 teachers, bringing back the retirement age down to 60 from 62, etc.) and to renegotiate fiscal discipline with the EU leadership.

What was interesting for Armenians was that both candidates personally attended the 97th anniversary commemoration of the Genocide (unlike Mr. Obama, who issued his soft-pedaling pronouncement on the Armenian Genocide on April 24, right after personally attending the Holocaust Day commemoration).

Only tears were missing in Mr. Sarkozy’s eyes when he delivered his passionate speech at the Genocide memorial. Had Sarkozy signed the French Senate’s resolution making the denial of the Armenian Genocide punishable by law, pre-empting the Supreme Court’s verdict, he would not have to shed tears, because perhaps 100,000 Armenians would have voted for him.

Mr. Hollande, who is more sedate in nature, promised at the rally that he would make sure that the law is drafted with “utmost legal security” in order to ensure its approval by the country’s highest court. “We can no longer commit an impression that would again leave us with the impossibility of having the text validated,” he said.

For our readers, the most anticipated parliamentary elections took place in Armenia. During the campaign, there was much jockeying between the parties and speculations were rife. Pollsters were very active with their predictions and many proved to be more biased than the parties involved.

The government promised fair elections, which the international observers took very seriously, since much depended on their reports. There were 647 international observers and 31,000 local observers. The elections took place in a calmer atmosphere than before. Bribing, which certainly took place in some regions, was not very easy to detect. But opposition groups made more noise than necessary to justify their anticipated losses. The ruling Republican Party had the government apparatus in its hands to steer the election in its favor, like all administrations before it.

A few pundits warned of big surprises, which did not materialize. The head of the Heritage Party, Raffi Hovannisian, predicted that on May 7, “we will wake up in a different Armenia.”

Perhaps Mr. Hovannisian was also surprised that he woke up in the same Armenia.

Political parties in Armenia may profess adherence to ideologies, but they basically represent a strong man or an oligarch. They all promise the same to the people and few deliver on their promises. This time around, the emigration issue was a major theme, which received some lip service from all the parties, with- out a tangible program to solve it.

Out of the nine parties running, six were successful in grabbing seats in the parliament. Thus, President Serge Sargisian’s Republican Party won 44.05 percent of the votes, which translates into 74 members of the parliament, for a total of 131. It means that it can garner a majority in the parliament over any resolution that it wishes, without the need of coalition partners.

Gagik Zaroukian’s Prosperous Armenian Party won 30.20 per- cent, which gives it 30 seats, plus eight elected on a majority slate. Levon Ter-Petrosian’s opposition party, the Armenian National Congress (HAK), won 7.10 percent of the votes, which allows them seven seats. Hovannisian’s Heritage Party won 5.79 percent (six seats) while Arthur Baghdassarian’s Country of Laws Party won 5.49 percent, which allows it five to six seats.

The big surprise was the downscaling of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) with 9.73 percent, which translates into five to six seats, down from 11 seats in the previous parliament. It is no surprise at all that election news in the ARF media begins with complaints about election irregularities, with- out touching the core issues of the elections.

The aftermath of the election will be more interesting to watch than the election itself, as horse-trading between the parties will begin until the power blocs are consolidated.

Throughout the campaign, Zaroukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party flirted with different opposition groups, despite its formal pact with its coalition partner, the Republican Party. It even formed an inter-party center for public oversight of elections to monitor irregularities. The Heritage Party refused to participate but odd bedfellows such as the ARF and the HAK participated. All the parties in the group have assured the electorate that their agreement does not extend beyond the elections, but some suspicions linger in the case of Prosperous Armenia. It looks like Zaroukian will turn out to be the kingmaker, with the guidance of former President Robert Kocharian behind the curtains. There is no love lost between Ter-Petrosian and Kocharian, nor between Ter-Petrossian and the ARF leadership, but a marriage of convenience seems to be in the offing.

Before the election, Ter-Petrosian expressed his readiness to enter into a power-sharing agreement with the ARF and Prosperous Armenia. The ARF has no problem cooperating with Prosperous Armenia (meaning Kocharian who had offered the gravy train in the past). Whatever is new is Ter-Petrosian’s readiness to cooperate with the necessary evils. “The Armenian National Congress does not exclude its participation in a real coalition, while categorically rejecting any cooperation with the Republican and Orinatz Yerkir (Land of Laws) parties, which it considers to be our country’s main evils,” he said.

After rhetoric to “deconstruct” the “kleptocracy,” Ter- Petrosian’s HAK coalition came up with five to six seats in the parliament, which is not sufficient to exercise effective opposition to the ruling party. Therefore, the Tuesday, May 8, HAK rally will prove to be a watershed for the opposition group; elected members of the Congress will either drop their parliamentary man- dates, not to disappoint their followers, or the first president has to pull out from his sleeves an agreement with Kocharian’s party, which will prove to be his lifeline.

The Republican Party has a sure bet on the Orinatz Yerkir Party to form a coalition, because the latter has nowhere to go but hang on the coattails of the president to survive.

With its diluted power in the parliament, the ARF will gleefully jump on the bandwagon of a coalition if it is realized through the cooperation of Kocharian and Ter-Petrosian.

Perhaps such a development will not prove to be a bad option, as a mechanism of checks and balances may emerge in the parliament, steering it into a balanced course.

How clean were the elections? The international observers gave mixed reviews: “Armenia deserves recognition for its electoral reforms and its open and peaceful campaign environment, but in this race several stakeholders too often failed to comply with the law, and the election commission too often failed to enforce it,” said Francois-Xavier de Donnea, head of the Organization for Security and Operations in Europe (OSCE) monitors.

But on the other hand, Radmilla Sekerinska, an observer mis- sion leader representing OSCE’s office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said: “The election campaign was open and respected fundamental freedoms, and the media offered broad and balanced coverage during the official campaign period.”

There is certainly progress in the democratic process. After taking all irregularities into consideration, the observers have not contested the election results. This offers the opportunity for the elected legislators to make good on their election pledges, and should the opposition move to a more formal venue from the streets, a civilized discourse may ensue, leading the country to increased stability and prosperity, which have to be the expectations of the electorate in the first place.

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