10/04/2007 - Analysis
When he announced on 29th January that the next general elections would take place on 12th May the President of the Republic, Robert Kotcharian launched a long year of electoral campaigning since the general election would be followed in March 2008 by the presidential election in which the present Head of State, Robert Kotcharian would not run. 1,497 people are running in the general elections ie a third more than during the previous election on 25th May 2003. 24 parties and one single electoral coalition are represented and 80% of the 131 MPs are running for re-election.
The Armenian Political System
The National Assembly (Azgayin Zhoghov) is the only chamber in parliament. It comprises 131 members now elected for five years by proportional (90 of them) and majority voting in one round (for the remaining 41). Each political party has to win at least 5% of the vote to be represented in the National Assembly (7% for coalitions). In addition to this the lists must include at least 15% of women amongst their candidates. The electoral system was recently modified (MPs were previously elected for four years by proportional (75 of them) and majority voting (in the case of the 51 remaining candidates) in order to fight against electoral fraud and corruption. Recent reforms also modified the composition of the Central Electoral Commission and those of the 56 districts reducing the number of its members appointed by the President of the Republic.
Six political parties are represented in the National Assembly at present:
- the Armenian Republican Party (HHK), the main party in the government coalition led by Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. The oldest party in the country, it has 31 MPs;
- The Justice Bloc (A), an opposition party with 14 seats;
- The Rule of Law Party (OE), a member of the government coalition until May 2006 before joining the opposition benches, 19 MPs;
- The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (HHD), a party which is a member of the present government coalition with 11 MPs;
- The Party of National Unity (AM), led by Artaches Guegamian, the unfortunate candidate in the last presidential election (16.9% of the vote in the first round on 19th February 2003) with 9 seats;
- the United Labour Party (MAK), member of the present government coalition with 6 MPs.
The last general elections on 25th May 2003 were marked by a great amount of electoral fraud. The Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), a movement in favour of the President of the Republic Robert Kotcharian (re-elected at Head of State on 5th March 2003, a presidential election that was contested by the opposition), was unsurprisingly the winner with 23.5% of the vote and 31 seats. It came ahead of the main opposition party, Justice Bloc, led by the unfortunate candidate in the presidential election, Stepan Demirtchian (Popular Party) which won 13.6% of the vote and 14 seats. After these elections the President of the Republic lost the absolute majority that he had previously held in the National Assembly with the opposition parties strengthening their positions. International observers denounced unanimously the infringements made during the election. "The Armenian general elections are still below international standards," declared Robert Barry, emissary of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Armenia, denouncing "the cases of falsification of results, ballot stuffing, the theft of voting slips, and the intimidation of international observers," observed in 30% polling stations.
On 25th March last Prime Minister Antranik Markarian died suddenly from a heart attack aged 56. He was replaced by Defence Minister Serzh Sarkisian on 5th April – the latter joined the Republican Party of Armenia just under a year ago (July 2006) and is believed by many to be the favourite in the succession to Robert Kotcharian as President of the Republic.
The Conflict in Nagorny Karabakh.
The conflict in Nagorny Karabakh (Karabagh means black garden) has marred Azeri-Armenian relations for decades. The mountainous, fertile region of 4 400 km2 inhabited by 150 000 people (three quarters of whom are Armenians), - that was part of Armenia until 1932 the date when Stalin decided to annex it to the Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan granting it the status of autonomous region – is now an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijani territory. The Nagorny Karabakh proclaimed its independence on 10th December 1991, a declaration, that with the collapse of the USSR caused a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the region supported by Erevan; it led to the death of 30,000 and hundreds of thousands of refugees.
In 1993, the Armenians took over a "security zone" of 8,000 km2 lying between their country and Azerbaijan. A ceasefire was signed on 12th may 1994 and froze the situation, with the Armenians occupying around 15% of Azerbaijani territory (Nagorny Karabakh and some surrounding areas).
Since then negotiations undertaken by the Minsk Group which is responsible to the OSCE for providing a framework to the negotiations, co-chaired by France, Russia and the USA have still not enabled the signing of a peace agreement. The Armenian and Azerbaijani Presidents, Robert Kotcharian and Heydar then Ilham Aliev have met on several occasions (the last time in Minsk on 28th November 2006) in an attempt to put an end to the conflict between the two countries. On 14th March last in Geneva the Azerbaijani and Armenian Foreign Ministers, Elmar Mamediarov and Vardan Oskanian spoke of organising another meeting between the two Heads of State. For his part the President of Nagorny Karabakh, Arkady Ghoukassian said once more that the Azerbaijani authorities would be obliged sooner or later to start talks on Nagorny Karabakh "if of course they really want to solve the problem," he remarked. Last year 581 incidents were recorded on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, ie twice as many as in 2005 (273).
The political and economic situation in Armenia
Major reforms have been adopted by the National Assembly since 2003, notably the abolition of the death penalty and the law on the media. The referendum of 27th November 2005 ratified by 93.2% of the voters (participation rate 65.4%) enabled the amendment of the Constitution so that it came in line with European standards after the country's accession to the Council of Europe in 2001.
Armenia's economic situation is maintaining a steady rhythm, something which is all the more noteworthy since the country does not have, unlike some of its neighbours, either oil or other types of energy resources. Over the last few years Armenia has experienced tremendous growth in its GDP (13.5% in 2005) and has regained the economic level it enjoyed in 1989. Inflation is now under control, the State's debt has been mastered and poverty is decreasing, but does remain a major problem however still affecting over one third of the population. Structural reforms have been undertaken, the privatisation programme has been completed and foreign investments have risen between 20% and 25% over the last year. World Bank economist Saumya Mitra who notes that Armenia is experiencing the greatest growth rate of all of the CIS countries did however warn that the country should rapidly undertake more reforms if it wants to maintain that growth. In addition to this he denounced the high cost and poor performance of telecommunications as well and the under-development of financial and insurance services which he believes endanger the country's development.
Armenia suffers due to its isolation, its lack of natural resources and its outdated industry, high levels of corruption (the country lies 93rd in the 2006 ranking established by Transparency International). The EU recently recalled that the problem of corruption was one of the main obstacles to the economic and social development of Armenia. Finally according to a survey undertaken in 2006 by the Centre for Regional Development and Transparency International Armenia, corruption is quoted as being the country's major problem by nine Armenians in ten, with the same amount believing that an improvement in the situation lay in the organisation of free, transparent elections.
The Election Stakes
The general elections on 12th May next that are to be followed by the presidential elections in March 2008 comprise a major test for Armenia. "I feel that the Armenian authorities are aware of the particular importance of these elections," declared Peter Semneby, special representative for the EU in the Southern Caucasus during a visit to Armenia at the beginning of March. The Council of Europe reminded the Armenian authorities of the significance of this election; its Parliamentary Assembly "is sorry to see that since joining the Council of Europe in 2001 no elections have been held that have been deemed totally free and loyal (...) it is vital that the next election comes in line with European standards of free and transparent elections, proving Armenia's progress on the path to democracy and European integration." Bojana Urumova, special representative of the Council of Europe's Secretary General even mentioned the possibility of suspending the mandates of the Armenian delegation if there is electoral fraud on 12th May. Finally via their representative in Armenia, Anthony Godfree the USA has also said that "free and just elections" were vital for the continuation of the Millenium Challenge programme on the part of the American Society for Aid and Development at work in Armenia.
The first OSECE observers arrived in Erevan on 14th March last. It is their work to monitor the electoral campaign closely: media activities, the electoral administration and more generally all of the authorities together. The Armenian capital received the first observers from the CIS on 5th April. In all 150 people led by Vladimir Rushailo are expected to observe the general elections.
The practices of some political parties were already being questioned several months before the elections. In October last Prosperous Armenia (BHK) launched a programme for the development of villages justifying its activities by the drought of last summer. The party which was formed at the beginning of 2006 by businessman Gagik Tsarukian distributed corn and potatoes to villagers and launched a free "protection" programme in several of the country's regions. Tigrane Karapetian, leader of the People's Party organised a number of trips notably targeting the retired and the poorest. He invited a number of village children to appear on TV. "The Armenian authorities will do their best to organise honest and just elections," said former Prime Minister Antranik Markarian on 7th February last.
The Electoral Campaign
The National Assembly that was formed after the general election on 25th May 2003 no longer represents political reality, a number of changes have occurred in the political community since (the rise of new parties, new alliances, defections etc...). Gagik Tsarukian, a millionaire businessman (chairman of the Multy Group company), head of the Armenia Olympic Committee and close colleague of Robert Kotcharian founded Prosperous Armenia (BHK) at the beginning of 2006); Justice Bloc just as Rule of Law which quit the presidential majority have experienced a number of defections.
The election on 12th May is special in that for the time being the competition is not so much between the ruling power and the opposition parties but rather between the government forces themselves. Indeed the two parties supporting Robert Kotcharian, the Armenian Republican Party and the party run by the extremely popular Gagik Tsarukian, Prosperous Armenia, are fighting to take the position as the country's leading party. The Armenian Republican Party, in power at present is a party of dignitaries which counts numerous ministers amongst its ranks but also several regional and local officials. The party defends a liberal policy with regard to the economy but it supports a strong State as far as religious and family traditions are concerned. Prosperous Armenia (BHK) is campaigning for more social justice and would like a radical transformation in Armenian society. Its candidates are mostly university members and teachers. Although the party that claims to have 370,000 members (less than 10% of the Armenian population) and has major financial means does in fact lack regional structures.
Present Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian is the leading candidate on the Armenian Republican Party list. Many members of government also feature on this: Justice Minister David Haroutiounian (who joined the party mid-February), Environment Minister, Vardan Ayvazian, Finance and Economy Minister, Vartan Khatchatrian, Trade and Development Minister, Karen Tchmaritian. Gaguik Tsaroukian, head of the Prosperous Armenia list is standing in his stronghold of Kotayk. The Union of Armenian Georgians, led by its chairman Tatchat Vardapetian, and the Council of Greek Armenian Organisations, a community of around 7,000 recently provided their support to the main party in Parliament.
The opposition rallies a multitude of parties which are more or less of significance and has an extremely variable electoral hold. But it remains deeply divided and because of this it does not worry the ruling powers. The main opposition parties are as follows: the Party for National Unity (AM), led by Artaches Guegamian, the National Armenian Movement, a party led by former President of the Republic (1991-1998), Levon Ter-Petrossian, the Popular Armenian Party led by Stepan Demirchian (son of Karen Demirchian, Armenian leader during the Soviet period), Rule of Law (OE) led by Artur Baghdasarian, the Democrat Party of Armenia led by Aram Sarksian, the Heritage Party led by former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannissian, the Impeachment Alliance created by Democratic Homeland led by Petros Makeyan and the Conservative Party led by Mikayel Hayrapetian.
On 2nd March last just before the deadline set for the delivery of candidatures the Justice Bloc (A) announced "the end of its activities" after the National Unity Party decided to stand alone before the electorate. "The creation of alliances cannot be an end in itself. Alliances that lack courage give nothing to society," declared its leader Stepan Demirchian at the end of February. During a press conference on 9th March last Raffi Hovhannissian leader of the Heritage Party declared that he assumed in part responsibility for the failure of the opposition to form an electoral alliance. The disagreements seem to have been more tactical than ideological. As a result of the opposition's electoral dispersal Vazgen Manukian, leader of the National Democratic Union (AzhM), decided not to take part in the general elections. "Being an MP in Parliament is not an honour and has no sense," he declared saying that he was not however withdrawing from the political arena but that he was planning to stand in the presidential election in March 2008. Likewise and according to its leader Hovhannes Hovhannessian, the Armenian Liberal Democrat Party (LPPA) would not be putting a candidate forward in these general elections "so that forces would not be dispersed."
Fourteen opposition parties will stand in disarray. Stepan Demirchian lies first on the Popular Party list; he is followed by Albert Bazeian, leader of the National Renaissance party. Artaches Guegamian is the leading candidate on the National Unity Party list followed by the party's Secretary, Alexan Karapetian. Nicol Pashinian, editor in chief of the daily Haykakan Zhamanak, is the lead candidate of the Impeachment Alliance. The main opposition parties have chosen not to put candidates forward for the seats appointed by majority vote (41 out of 131 MPs).
According to some political analysts the opposition forces will use the next general elections to measure the support they have with a view to the presidential election in March next year, an election which is believed to be extremely important by all.
According to the most recent poll undertaken by Sociometer Prosperous Armenia (BHK) will win the general elections on 12th May. The party is due to win 25% of the vote. The Armenian Republican Party is due to win between 17% and 18% of the vote. Six other parties – Rule of Law, the Heritage Party and the Popular Party of Armenia, the People's Party, the Party of National Unity and the Armeniain Revolutionary Federation Dashnak (ARFD) – may very well win a place in Parliament. To date less than a third of the electorate (30%) say they have decided who they will vote for.
The official campaign started on 8th April and will end on 10th May.
Reminder of the General Election Results 25th May 2003
Source : Commission électorale centrale d'Arménie