New Configuration of the Power Structure in Armenia


The year 2018 was a tumultuous period for Armenia. In view of its precarious situation in the region, a lackluster economy and a war on its borders, many thought that Armenia could ill-afford any domestic upheaval. But despite those risks, change did come to Armenia because of the exasperation of its people living in poverty, lawlessness and hopelessness.

The ruling Republican party was well entrenched and it controlled all levers of power. Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step movement triggered the Velvet Revolution, which swept away the ruling Republican Party. People were driven to such desperation that they took the radical step of supporting a complete overhaul, believing that nothing could be worse than the conditions in which they were forced to live. The majority of people were against the old regime rather than for Pashinyan’s movement. Pashinyan, a journalist, took advantage of the popular discontent and he made his decisive move. He brought a wave of optimism which is conducive to creative thinking and positive action. That optimism needs to be channeled into realistic means to achieve promised changes and to put the country back on its track of development.

Pashinyan was elected as prime minister on May 8 by an antagonistic parliament which had tried to use any means to derail his course. Backed by popular support, Pashinyan and his revolutionary team stayed the course and were able to engineer snap elections last week. The Republican-controlled parliament cried wolf that Pashinyan was stealing the election while putting on a euphoric display, not allowing time for other parties to get organized. Of course, that was the name of the game and any one in his position, including the disgruntled Republicans, would have done the same and used the political vacuum to push ahead his or her agenda.

Finally, the elections took place on Sunday, December 9 offering a landslide victory to Pashinyan’s My Step alliance.

Armenia, like other post-Soviet republics, has not been able to form political parties based on ideology. This time around is no different; people have rallied around a charismatic leader, and the nature of politics will remain the same, driven by bread-and-butter issues rather than ideology.

However, Pashinyan delivered on the first installment of his promise by organizing fair and free parliamentary elections. A sober analysis of the situation is in order, before anyone questions the new leader’s future performance or the possibility that he may be biting off more than he can chew. He is bringing with him a young and educated class of legislators who have yet to grow as statesmen.

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The election results were long anticipated; My Step garnered 70.43 percent of the vote; Gagik Tsarukyan’s Prosperous Armenia came second with 8.27 percent of the votes and Edmond Maroukyan’s Bright Armenia took third place with 6.37 percent of the votes.

Two parties which were expecting to be in the parliament and yet did not clear the 5 percent vote threshold were the Republican Party, which received 4.7 percent of the votes and the ARF (Dashnaktsutyun), which got 3.9 percent of the votes.

The Republican party does not deserve any sympathy because it brought upon itself its destiny by misrule and insensitivity towards the basic needs of the population, while its cronies enjoyed a flashy, opulent lifestyle. Their loss burnt some mature statesmen, among them Vigen Sargsyan, who was heading the Republican slate.

The other hopeful party was the ARF, which has been in the parliament since 1999, sometimes playing the role of the opposition but most of the time in a coalition with the ruling party, always its eyes on the gravy train. During the 2017 elections, it is believed that Serzh Sargsyan underhandedly offered 20,000 votes to help the party meet the election bar. After accepting defeat, the ARF issued a statement blaming the electorate for voting for popular individuals rather than ideas. That statement is true, because among all 11 parties and alliances in the running, the ARF was the only party based on ideology.

While the participation of the voters was 48 percent, in the ARF’s case, perhaps their members and followers’ participation hit 90 percent because of their organizational skills and discipline.

With this election loss, the change of the leadership will be precipitated as Hrant Markaryan has lost popularity in Armenia and among the ARF rank and file across the diaspora.

Pashinyan tried to reform the election laws which are complicated and lower the bar for election to 3 percent for parties and 5 percent for alliances, instead of 5 and 7 percent, respectively. But his move was defeated in the parliament. Ironically, that defeat hurt the Republican party in the first place, which would have been within range to get into parliament.

According to Article 76 of the election code, the minimum number of parliament  members should be 101. The strange calculation of the same code allows bonus percentage points to the winners, thus raising their percentage to 83.6 percent for My Step (84 members), 9.8 for Prosperous Armenia (25 members) and 7.5 for Bright Armenia (17 members). The total number of MPs will be 132.

Pashinyan’s alliance includes also four members from Armenia’s ethnic minorities, namely Assyrians, Russians, Kurds and Yezidis.

Armenia’s constitution allocates 30 percent of the parliament to opposition forces. Now the question will arise as to who will play that role. During the rule of the previous regime, Serzh Sargsyan would nominate any group to assume the role of the opposition artificially. In this case, the same game will force itself on the system because neither Tsarukyan nor Marukyan have ever opposed Pashinyan. Commenting about the election results, Pashinyan stated that “an absolute constitutional majority will not have any problems with the adoption of legislative initiatives.”

This lopsided system denies the legislature the mechanism of checks and balances in the absence of a viable opposition. This absolute power brings with it also an awesome responsibility for self-control, because as the saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Some commentators in the media have been warning Pashinyan not to overplay the power at his disposal. Even a Russian commentator went so far as to describe Armenia in the atmosphere of the 1930s Soviet Union.

At the same time, former president Robert Kocharyan’s incarceration exactly two days before the elections fuels those conspiracy theories rampant on line about the incitement of fear.

The voter turnout was 48 percent versus 61 percent in the 2017 elections. Many justifications are offered to explain the downturn, beginning with inclement weather to bribes used in the past and false statistics as well as the assurance of the electorate that My Step’s landslide victory was a slam dunk, so why bother to vote. Some arguments are valid and others questionable.

For the Republican Party, the election results signified sour grapes, as demonstrated by their post-election statement that “these elections were democratic in form but not in substance.”

The polls were monitored by more than 500 foreign observers. Most of them came from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In addition, 17,813 observers from local NGOs and SOS observers of international organizations carried out observer missions in the snap parliamentary elections. The OSCE offered the most positive evaluation by a Western-led monitoring mission. Its report stated, “Election day proceeded calmly and peacefully, with all its stages assessed by almost all mission observers, indicating general adherence to the procedures.”

The Council of Europe’s  Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) representative was more generous and specific in his assessment. “I congratulate the Armenian people,” said Aleksander Pociej, the head of the PACE delegation. “Armenia’s 2018 peaceful Velvet Revolution, in conjunction with the political will of the current authorities, enabled the holding of democratic elections.”

The reporting of the international news media was equally positive. The BBC, the Economist, the Nation, the New York Times, all covered the elections and they were unanimous in their positive assessment.

For the first time, the US State Department has endorsed the election results. The congratulatory message from Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders were also encouraging.

Now that Pashinyan passed his first test with flying colors, received by the electorate and supported by the international community, he has to embark on his awesome mission to deliver on his promises.

With the elimination of corruption, trust will be restored soon, which will encourage investments and grants to build up the economy, which is currently in shambles and to vigorously exercise the rule of law in the country to justify and reinforce the hope that the Velvet Revolution generated.

People have voted for Pashinyan believing that he has brought a new era in Armenia. They are still filled with anger and rancor against the old regime and Pashinyan is playing up to that popular sentiment by some macho statements. Hopefully, that will gradually fade out, because that is not an attribute of a mature statesman. Corrupt people have to be brought to justice while the government should always avoid the temptation of giving in to a witch hunt.

The victory has been sweet and sour. But the hopes and confidence of the people are great. This is a historic moment whose momentum should not be lost.

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