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In Armenia, has everything changed so that everything can remain the same?
23 March 2017

This is a commentary prepared by the political editor of commonspace.eu

A new Constitution, a new Prime Minister and plenty of new faces on  the candidates list are meant to ensure that the Republican Party of Armenia retains power after the 2 April elections. Will it succeed?

Armenia's parliamentary elections scheduled for 2 April have up to now looked like a non-event, but as election day approaches things are getting more interesting. Faced with voter apathy and widespread cynicism the Armenian government and ruling party appeared as if they were taking a page straight out of Giussepe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel, the Leopard, set in Sicily at the time of the Italian Risorgimento. In the novel the Prince confronted with the prospect of turmoil, says that "for everything to remain the same, everything must change". Faced with multiple challenges Armenia's governing Republican Party has been busy making changes, in order to ensure that it may maintain its firm grip on power.

First came the change in the constitution in December 2015. As a result, as from next year, when the term of the current Presidential incumbent, Serzh Sargsyan, expires, Armenia will become a parliamentary republic, with the powers vested in the Prime Minister as leader of the party holding a majority in parliament.

Then came the change of the Prime Minister. Hovik Abrahamyan was unceremoniously dismissed in September 2016, and replaced by Karen Karapetyan. Karapetyan had largely made a name for himself outside Armenia, as a technocrat working for Gazprom. With an image as an efficient operator, he has provided the ruling party with a fresh face, untainted by scandal and the baggage of years in power. Although he is not actually a candidate in the elections, it is his picture that the ruling party is using most to promote itself in the elections. There is however no guarantee that Karapetyan will remain as Prime Minister once the constitutional changes trigger in. Many Armenians still believe that Serzh Sargsyan will simply change titles and take on the role of prime Minister. Karapetyan lacks a local power base that is strong enough to challenge that. He seems to have more friends in Moscow than in Yerevan, but for the moment he brings a fresh breeze in an otherwise stale political atmosphere.

Ahead of the elections, the Republican Party's list of candidates was also spruced up. Some new faces were added and brought to higher positions on the list of candidates, even if the presence of oligarchs remains largely unaffected. This again gives the feeling of a revitalised party, even if in fact power remains tightly controlled by President Sargsyan and his immediate circle.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Republican Party will win the elections without too much difficulty. The use of administrative resources, general voter apathy, a fear of the unknown, and some in-built provisions in the electoral system, are likely to combine to see it emerge as the front runner. It is however likely that it will need the support of other parties to form a majority.

That is not likely to be a problem. Many Armenians are convinced that most of the other parties contesting the elections are satellites of the RPA, even if there are enough personality clashes to ensure that a healthy degree of competition for the votes is very real. Gagik Tsarukyan's Prosperous Armenia, and Artur Baghdasarian's Renaissance are good examples. The first has genuine widespread grass root support. The second doesn't. Nothing however would give both greater pleasure than to be asked to join in coalition with the RPA. Another party, the Dashnak, Armenian Revolutionary Federation, are also likely future coalition partners. Their popularity in Armenia has never grown beyond single percentage digits, despite the fact that they remain a force among the diaspora communities in western countries and the middle east, but they seem to have found a modus vivendi with the RPA that suits both.

There are however three political forces that cannot be easily categorised as allies of the ruling party. Traditionally Levon Ter Petrossian's Armenian National Congress has been the main opponent of the current ruling force. This party is however today a shadow of its former self. It has, for reasons no one is able to explain, decided to contest the election on the platform of peace with Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh.  Commendable as such a platform is, most Armenian observers think that the Armenian electorate had not been prepared for this kind of political agenda, and in any case the vagueness of the ANC's position poses more questions than it gives answers. They may still make it into parliament based on the loyalty of their voter base. The second group is a small party called "Way Out alliance" which has ruled out any coalition with the RPA, and is the only mainstream party that advocates closer relations with Europe rather than with Russia.

And finally there is the "Ohanian-Raffi-Oscanian" triumvirate that is spicing up the election. No one thinks they are going to win - they do not have the resources, and their message has not been able to penetrate to the deeper grassroots of society. But many Armenians are fascinated by the fact that three former key ministers, including Ohanian, who was until recently Defence Minister, have now started rounding up against their former allies. Raffi Hovhanissian, the second one in the trio, brings to the triumvirate the astonishing success that he scored in the last Presidential elections when he nearly forced President Serzh Sargsyan into a second round, despite having very few resources and conducting a somewhat bizarre election campaign. The third, Vartan Oscanian, a former Foreign Minister, is considered an astute politician, who the government has always seen as a potential threat. Together this triumvirate cannot be dismissed easily, and even if they do not pose an immediate existential challenge to the RPA, they may still be able to impact Armenian politics significantly if they are able to secure a strong showing, and a good foothold in Parliament.

Contemporary Armenians are generally hugely cynical about their politicians, and greatly disenchanted with their political system. There is a generational problem too. The older generation do not feel empowered enough to believe in elections; the younger generation by and large consider that the political process is flawed and offers no hope for real change.

But Armenian politics also has the habit to throw up surprises - often unpleasant ones - that challenge the obvious certainties. Cosmetic change so that everything can remain the same may no longer be enough. The 2 April elections therefore should not be ignored. They may not be the immediate trigger for change, but they may tell us a lot whether change is likely to happen further up the line.

This commentary was prepared by the political editor of commonspace.eu

Commonspace.eu will run a live blog covering the Armenian Parliamentary elections starting at 12.00 CET on Saturday 1 April 2017. The blog will be available in both English and Russian.

Photo:  A fresh face for the Armenian Republican Party: Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan playing the drums in an RPA election video (You can watch the video here)

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