Political forces in Armenia are brazing themselves for a tough campaign ahead of parliamentary elections in April 2017. Constitutional changes enacted in 2015, and a new electortal law, adopted earlier this year, provide a new framework, which has on the whole been welcomed by local political forces and the international community. However, as Armenian political analyst Sos Avetisyan writes from Yerevan, in this commentary for commonspace.eu, the government still has subtle ways in which it can influence the outcome.
With Armenia's political system gravitating towards a parliamentary model, the electoral code that governs the conduct of elections is assuming decisive importance. At the end of the day, it is this law that will shape the make-up of Armenia's new parliament. On June 16, 2016, the opposition parties represented in the parliament - Armenian National Congress (HAK), Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP), Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and The Country of Law (OEK) reached a perhaps a historical consensus with the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) over the new electoral code.
The original format of the discussions that became known as 4+4+4 included 4 civil society representing organizations, alongside the political forces. While the civil society representatives actively participated at the negotiation phase, the agreement was co-signed only by the political parties. The new electoral code came into being due to concessions made by the Republican Party. For example, at elections there will be an identity check of the voters through biometrics registry, which is supposed to prevent practices such as "ballot stuffing" and "carousel voting" - common tools for rigging elections. Furthermore, cameras will be installed at polling stations that will live-stream the whole election process, ensuring transparency.
However, the biggest concession from the authorities was agreeing to publish the list of people who actually cast their vote at elections. Previously, the ruling party was unwilling to share such information, arguing that it will jeopardize the secrecy of the ballot. That stand allowed the authorities to boost their vote by stuffing uncast ballots for their own candidates. Repeatedly over the years, the Armenian opposition accused the authorities of using these ghost voters to swing the outcome of elections to their favor.
So, what are the real reasons for such softening of the governmental line? There are two explanations. First, there is a tremendous Western pressure on Armenian authorities for comprehensive reforms. Given that Armenia is moving to a parliamentary system under the guidance of President Serzh Sargsyan, Western support and endorsement is paramount. Secondly, the safeguards against a possible opposition victory are carefully installed in the fabric of the law.
Western support and transition to parliamentary model
Serzh Sargayan's decision to switch from semi-presidential (it was almost always fully presidential) system to a parliamentary one has political costs. With the formal opposition remaining weak and unorganized within the country, the only real threat can be a negative Western reaction to such affair. During the campaign for the referendum on constitutional changes Serzh Sargsyan made public statements that he will not become prime minister after such changes come into effect
However, in his most recent interview, with Al Jazeera, Sargsyan argued that the question who will become the prime minister remains open, and one should wait and see how RPA will perform during the parliamentary elections. It increasingly becomes apparent that Sargsyan wants to continue his rule by changing the hat of the president with the hat of prime minster. Given this background, Western endorsement, or at least soothing of criticism is needed. Holding parliamentary elections that will meet Western standards of transparency, and appeal to the opposition parties, hence becomes an important objective. The EU is expected be a major donor for implementing the electoral improvement mechanism, providing around 16 million Euros.
The "devil is in the detail"
Serzh Sargsyan's government is neither naïve nor altruistic to trust such important transition to the faith of sophisticated electoral mechanisms. The electoral law is constructed to ensure the endurance of the regime. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), as well as the OSCE, noted that time limit on forming coalitions- the parties who passed the threshold should form coalition within six days after the election results are known, as well on the numbers of the parties (no more than three parties or political groups can form a coalition) is a clear downside of the new law.
The most important card that government has in its sleeve is the so call rating/compensating system. In order to ensure so called "stable majority", in the electoral code it is enshrined that in case one of the parties attains four-ninth of the overall vote or above, it will receive additional MP mandates to the point that it ensures 54 percent representation in the parliament.
Lastly, the government has recently passed a law on "false accusation" supplementing the electoral code, which effectively is aimed at threatening journalists and/or observers who report voting irregularities.
The limitations on coalition-building, is linked to the fact that there should be a stable majority in the parliament. In this way, the RPA ensures that it will get necessary seats in the parliament while denying any possibility for the consolidation of the opposition. Furthermore, the current coalition arrangement with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, if continued in the next parliament, depletes any significant possibility for real challenge to an RPA government in Armenia. Given that the installment of a new sophisticated identification mechanisms will lessen the chances for ballot-stuffing, the ruling regime has opted to ensure its continuation through electoral mechanism.
Put simply, the RPA, with the backing of extensive administrative resources, will likely secure a "clean vote" of around thirty-five, without needing to resort to electoral malpractices. Then by forming an alliance with the ARF it will be able to form the "stable majority". Given the constraints for coalition-building that other parties now have under the revised constitutions, that scenario is now increasingly likely.
The "false accusation" law puts the burden of proof on the activists who report any falsification of the vote, and in case the court deems that there was not a violation of the law, then those reporting it will be held responsible. The law has been described by human rights activist as government leverage to limit the activities of election observers. While legal experts are assured that there is no lawful way to hold those reporting election violations responsible for "false accusation", it nevertheless, remains a potent way for government to threaten journalists and/or observers.
To conclude, the new electoral code was endorsed by OSCE and PACE as well as agreed with the political parties in Armenia, it nevertheless remains a controversial one. In other words, it skews the level playing field to favor the incumbent regime in a disproportional manner.
source: Sos Avetisyan is an Armenian political commentator and observer. He recently graduated with an M.Phil in Russian studies from the University of Oxford. He contributed this op-ed for commonspace.eu
photo: Armenians voting in a recent election (archive picture courtesy of RFE/RL)