By Harout Manougian (Staff Writter, EVN Report)
On Sunday, June 20, 2021, Armenian citizens went back to the polls for the third time in five years to elect its eighth parliament. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had come to an agreement with parliamentary opposition parties to hold this early election in the wake of the 2020 Artsakh War, mainly to cast aside doubts on his continued legitimacy to govern that had been raised by protesters and other officials calling for his resignation.
The gamble paid off, as Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party took 54% of the votes, down from the 70% he achieved in 2018 but still a solid majority. The parliamentary opposition parties, Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia, failed to meet the 5% party threshold and lost all their seats. They will be replaced by the Armenia Alliance (dominated by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation) and the I’m Honoured Alliance (dominated by the Republican Party of Armenia), who will be returning to Parliament after failing to meet the threshold in 2018 in 5th and 4th place, respectively.
This election was held using only closed party candidate lists in one national constituency, abandoning the hybrid model that included regional open lists that was used in 2017 and 2018. It certainly made counting and tabulating the results less burdensome, though the justification for the change was to crack down on vote-bribing schemes.
Pashinyan’s main opponent was Robert Kocharyan, President from 1998-2008, who re-entered politics to lead the Armenia Alliance. Kocharyan had just come out of a long drawn-out case against him related to a police crackdown on protesters (of which Pashinyan was one) in the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election. The personal vendettas of the two personalities against each other led to violent rhetoric being used during the campaign.
While the June 20 election date had been agreed upon as early as March 18, it was not officially set until a constitutional dance of formalities (where the Prime Minister resigns and the National Assembly fails to elect a replacement after two tries over 14 days) was completed on May 10. Almost immediately after this point of no return, Azerbaijani soldiers marched several kilometers into areas of Armenia’s Syunik and Gegharkunik regions, in what they framed as border demarcation activities but Armenians perceived as a blatant invasion and attempt to instigate a new round of war. These soldiers have still not retreated, and they entrenched national security as the primary campaign issue. Kocharyan’s Armenia Alliance adopted the motto “Towards a Strong Armenia,” implying that the democratic direction the country had taken since 2018 had weakened it in relation to the authoritarians in its neighborhood. Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party took the motto “There is a Future,” insisting that continuing down the path of reform would make life better for citizens and that they should not revert to the way things worked before.
Voter turnout was low, at 1.28 million, but slightly higher than the figure in 2018’s election of 1.26 million. Voter turnout percentages are not considered to be useful because the voter lists include many citizens who have moved abroad; citizens must be in the country on Election Day to vote. For comparison, the voter turnout in the 2017 parliamentary election was 1.58 million.
The campaign and election day
Although many voters had issues with both of the top contenders, the fractured political field of 25 political parties and alliances made most of them vote for the party they felt was the lesser of two evils. One fifth, 19.7%, of votes cast went to the 22 parties that did not meet the threshold and were disregarded. Notably, however, the Prosperous Armenia Party and the Republic Party (different from the Republican Party of Armenia), did pass the minimum 2% hurdle to qualify for public funding, which should keep their organizations in the game for the next election, scheduled for 2026.
Pashinyan’s party finished first in all 11 regions of the country, receiving more than 50% of the vote in all regions except the capital city of Yerevan, where they took 42%. The results highlighted that Kocharyan’s base was strongest in the central district of Yerevan, where residents face less financial difficulties, while Pashinyan dominated in rural areas, which felt that the Velvet Revolution of 2018 had turned a new page where their plight would no longer be neglected.
An international observation mission led by OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE-PA and PACE gave a positive assessment of the election process. They noted shortcomings in the areas of polling station accessibility for persons with disabilities and a general sidelining of women candidates during the campaign.
The Armenia Alliance was less satisfied with the conduct of the election. After Nikol Pashinyan’s victory speech on election night (a step that, in other countries, only takes place after the main opponent concedes their loss), the Armenia Alliance published a statement expressing their concern about the results and that they would be deciding on their strategy to dispute them. There was some talk that they could refuse to take up their MP seats, similar to how the Georgian opposition refused to take part in legislative processes after their parliamentary election in late 2020. In the end, they announced that they would take up their seats after all, in order to use parliamentary processes to oppose the government’s agenda. As for Kocharyan, however, he is less sure; although taking a seat as an MP would grant him immunity from prosecution (as Pashinyan can expect to continue to bring various charges against him), he expressed that he saw himself as better fit for the executive branch than the legislative.
Armenia’s political parties will need to adapt if they intend to become competitive. Beginning in 2022, the electoral threshold for political parties will be lowered from 5% to 4% (only 4 of the 25 competing parties met even the lower bar in 2021), while the threshold for alliances of two parties will be increased from 7% to 8%. In order to have any hopes of remaining relevant, many of these parties will have to seriously consider consolidating organizationally and opening their doors, rather than remaining closed clubs of the network of an individual founder-leader. Five of the 25 parties averaged less than one vote per precinct (Armenia has 2008 precincts), which is not sustainable.
Photo source: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/6/22/what-does-pashinyans-election-victory-mean-for-armenia