Opposition protesters camped outside the parliament campus

Snap Elections Run into Electoral Code Reform

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YEREVAN – Almost a week since Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced a date for upcoming snap parliamentary elections, pro-government and opposition political parties are debating whether or not to implement a planned electoral code reform in time for the vote scheduled for June 20.

Following months of intrigue, Pashinyan struck a deal with the two parliamentary opposition factions late last week. While the prime minister had dropped hints of his readiness to hold a new vote as early as last December, the format and timeline has remained a subject of much debate. The liberal-leaning Bright Armenia party and business tycoon Gagik Tsarukyan’s Prosperous Armenia agreed not to field rival prime ministerial candidates once the current prime minister resigns in order for the country’s complicated parliamentary mechanism to trigger a snap election. According to Bright Armenia leader Edmon Marukyan, his party’s requirement that Pashinyan reinstate former Chief of the General Staff Onik Gasparyan was withdrawn once the issue became moot — Gasparyan’s replacement, Lieutenant General Artak Davtyan has already taken office.

The scheduled elections are expected to relieve simmering tensions in the country following the defeat against the Turkish and Azerbaijani armies in Artsakh last November. Pashinyan, who rode a wave of popular discontent with the previous administration into power back in 2018, has been facing mounting calls to resign from various segments of Armenian society and the diaspora. Others have pointed to holding fresh elections as a legitimate egress for the prime minister’s party seeking to regain the mandate it lost during the war.

The announcement of fresh elections was not enough to satisfy the demands of the Homeland Salvation Movement — a street opposition alliance largely composed of, and financed by, the former regime deposed in the 2018 Velvet Revolution. This coalition’s leadership instead demands that Pashinyan resign and hand power to their candidate, the septuagenarian mathematician and one-time Prime Minister Vazgen Manukyan who would helm a “caretaker government” for a one-year period before organizing its own elections.

This proposal hasn’t managed to garner much support from the general public however. According to a recent poll commissioned by the International Republican Institute, only 6 percent of voters would definitely trust the Homeland Salvation Movement to lead a transitional government, while 76 percent were opposed to the idea. Analysts say the Movement’s leadership — largely composed of figures considered “tainted” by their involvement in the previous regime — has not resonated well with voters. The IRI poll places this coalition in the low single digits for voting intentions, well behind the governing Civil Contract Party and its allies which command some 30 percent of voting intentions. The match up isn’t much more favorable to these parties when listed individually either.

Opposition protesters camped outside the parliament campus

Still, voter distrust hasn’t dissuaded the Homeland Salvation Movement from blockading Yerevan’s main thoroughfare, Baghramyan Avenue, for almost two months. Tents pitched on the road in an aborted attempt to block access to the Parliament Building were only removed on Tuesday afternoon after the movement’s leadership announced a new strategy to “expand the geography” of their campaign to topple the elected government. Manukyan, the movement’s prime ministerial candidate, who has called the prospects of elections organized under the current government “the most disastrous in history,” has already announced his intention to boycott the vote. The movement’s leadership has also elected to stick to their original demands despite parting ways with its biggest faction, Prosperous Armenia.

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But with less than 70 days until the election, the political parties are divided over the issue of implementing a long-planned electoral code reform before the vote. The electoral code overhaul package, which has been under consideration since 2018, primarily deals with the elimination of the controversial “electoral ridings” in favor of an all-proportional voting system. The mixed system has long been criticized for allowing local government-affiliated oligarchs to use their influence in order to win safe seats without directly implicating the ruling party in corruption rackets.

The new package would also lower the threshold for party representation from the current five percent to under three percent. However, the cutoff for electoral alliances would be raised in a bid to encourage the consolidation of political parties as the main units in Armenian democracy.

An earlier version of this proposal was voted down by the then-ruling Republican and Armenian Revolutionary Federation parties which ironically did not make the higher five-percent cut in the subsequent elections.

Another major change in the original reform bill — lifting the gender quota for women being every fourth candidate on party lists to every third — no longer appears in the updated proposal, having been made redundant when that new criteria automatically came into effect on January 1 this year. However, the updated bill does include a new provision which would provide the Central Election Committee with guidelines on conducting elections during major public health scares such as pandemics, such as mandating the use of personal protective equipment for voters.

Despite the electoral code overhaul effort being a non-partisan issue, the Bright Armenia party has expressed its opposition to adopting the bill before June’s election. Party leader Marukyan cited concerns that enacting these changes so soon before a vote might lead to administrative challenges and confusion at a crucial moment. He also suggested that the implementation of this new code could serve as a pretext to delay the impending election. “To adopt new rules of the game means imperiling the announced election date, hence, deepening the crisis in the country,” Marukyan said.

Nevertheless, other parties and prominent civil rights organizations have framed the adoption of the new electoral code as an imperative for holding free and fair elections. Danniel Ioannisyan of the Union of Informed Citizens responded to Marukyan’s criticism of the bill, stating that while some of his concerns are valid, holding elections before the new code is passed would be “disgraceful.”

This sentiment was echoed by the startup social-democratic Citizen’s Decision party which insisted that the code must be overhauled before the election to ensure a proper democratic contest. However they affirmed their willingness to take part in the vote regardless.

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