NAASR Panel at Harvard Probes Diaspora Role in Armenia’s Democratic Future

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On Saturday, December 3, the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) held a panel discussion entitled “The Armenian Parliamentary Elections in April, 2017: How can the Diaspora engage in Armenia’s Democratic Evolution,” at Harvard University.

The program was sponsored in conjunction with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Moderating the panel discussion was Dr. Anna Ohanyan, the Richard B. Finnegan distinguished professor of political science and international relations at Stonehill College. The panelists were Prof. Miguel E. Basanez, director of the Judicial Reform Program, Tufts University Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, an expert on electoral practices and opinion polling in Mexico; John M. Evans, American diplomat and former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia; via Skype from Armenia Sona Ayvazyan, a founding member and executive director of Transparency International Anti-Corruption Center; Isabella Sargsyan, program director at the Eurasia Partnership Foundation and an international consultant on religious freedom issues and Tevan Poghosyan, member of parliament in Armenia and president of the International Center for Human Development.

The 25-year-old Republic of Armenia is facing political unrest due to issues of corruption, lack of economic growth, dissatisfaction with the current government, and concerns regarding the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. In April 2017, Armenia will hold its first parliamentary elections since the Constitutional reform referendum of December 2015 and will transition from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary one, strengthening the legislature at the expense of the presidency. The goal of the discussion at Harvard was to explain the Constitutional changes occurring in Armenia and to explore the role of the diaspora in the political evolution of the country.

Basanez spoke first about election fraud in Mexico and the impact that it had on Mexico’s democratic evolution. He noted the importance of opinion polling with an emphasis on how to improve the veracity of the responses. Basanez played a central role in improving Mexican electoral practices that support democracy. After 71 years of the dominance of a single party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was defeated in the elections through the ballot box in 2000.

Elections that are free, fair and transparent constitute the bedrock of any democracy.  Around 84 percent of the respondents in Armenia answered that it is important for citizens to vote in elections, according to the Caucasus Barometer survey carried out by the Caucasus Research Resource Center in Armenia. Over the past 20 years, a new trend of authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries to rely on elections to legitimize their power has been significant. Elections are carried out, in democratic and most authoritarian states alike. However, fraudulent elections have emerged as the parallel trend. Electoral fraud erodes the basic trust between the government and the people; according to the Caucasus Barometer, only 5 percent of respondents in Armenia agreed with the statement that “most people can be trusted” and 30 percent thought that “you cannot be too careful.”  The numbers for Georgia were slightly better.

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Importantly, electoral fraud and the breakdown of trust can be powerful factors for producing instability and violence as occurred in Yerevan this past summer. In 2015 only 35 percent of the respondents thought that democracy is preferable to any other form of government, a decline from 57 percent in 2011. Another significant shift is that the number of people agreeing that people should participate in protest actions against the government in Armenia increased from 26 percent in 2011 to 46 percent in 2015. Regarding perceptions as to whether the most recent elections were conducted fairly, only 6 percent said yes in Armenia, versus 37 percent in Georgia.

This trend is alarming, and there are no quick fixes. However, the experience of Mexico and other countries demonstrate that there are ways to combat electoral fraud including to engage the Diaspora community and to strengthen election monitoring. Diaspora communities worldwide are increasingly active players for their home states in terms of remittances, promoting foreign direct investment, and in the political sphere. In terms of politics, 119 countries have external voting provisions, including Mexico, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Russia, among many others. Armenia’s dual citizenship law is very conservative, and requires in-country presence for a citizen to vote.

Against this backdrop, the possibility for Diasporan Armenians lacking citizenship to serve as election monitors in the upcoming parliamentary elections, is a step for civil participation and a mechanism for strengthening the bond between the Diaspora and Armenia. Isabella Sargsyan showed a bar chart demonstrating that voting results in polling places with election monitoring were significantly different and much less supportive of the dominant party than voting results in non-monitored precincts. The chart below shows the voting results of the Armenia, 2015 Constitutional Referendum in the Armavir region. The percentage of “yes” votes was dramatically lower in the polling precincts with foreign observers.

Ohanyan and other members of the panel emphasized that even with election monitors, there is no guarantee that the elections will be free of tampering. They pointed out that the goal of free, fair and transparent elections is an ongoing challenge and will take time to achieve.

The elections are one piece of a much larger challenge to engage the Diaspora in the democratic evolution of Armenia according to Evans. The Diaspora and Armenia have the potential mutually to develop the democratic structures necessary to propel Armenia forward.

The Citizen Observer Initiative is inviting volunteers from across the Diaspora to join volunteers in Armenia and be election observers for the Parliamentary Elections to be held on April 2, 2017. The aim of the initiative is to provide oversight of the voting process and prevent electoral violations and fraud.