Elections in Armenia Could be Improved Only by Changing Society’s Value System
Last week’s presidential elections in Armenia received substantial coverage in the international media. Here is how The Economist, a British weekly newspaper, assessed the situation:
“Elections in former Soviet republics rarely yield surprises. The incumbent wins; the opposition cries foul; it takes to the streets. The presidential vote in Armenia on February 19th ran true to form. Serzh Sarkisian, the prime minister, won 53% of the vote, enough to avert a runoff with his main rival, Levon Ter-Petrossian, with 21%. Mr. Ter-Petrossian, a former president, said Mr. Sarkisian had stolen the vote even before ballots were counted. Independent observers talked of ballot stuffing and intimidation. Yet, as thousands of demonstrators gathered in central Yerevan, monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe opined that the election was ‘mostly in line with the country’s international commitments’, even though the vote count in 16% of stations was ‘bad or very bad’. That verdict makes it more unlikely that the opposition can overturn the results.”
According to the official and final election results, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian received 862,369 votes (52.8%); former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, 351,222 votes (21.5%); former Speaker of the Parliament Arthur Baghdasarian (16.7%), the ARF candidate and Deputy Speaker of Parliament Vahan Hovhannisian (6.2%) and the remaining 5 candidates collectively received 2.8%. Here are my own thoughts on the elections:
-- There were no earth-shattering surprises, as almost all the candidates received more or less what the pollsters and pundits had expected. Were there violations of election laws? Yes, there were. Yet, all international observers gave a passing grade to the elections, while noting some irregularities. Significantly, however, none of these observers questioned the outcome of the elections.
-- One could wonder how a small country like Armenia ended up with nine presidential candidates? In past elections, those wishing to run for president had to collect a large number of signatures from all regions of the country. Those who could not collect the necessary signatures were not placed on the ballot. This time around, no mention was made of such a requirement. Allowing anyone to run for the highest office in the land unnecessarily cluttered the elections and created more chaos and confusion. Either this requirement was recently dropped from Armenia’s election laws or was not enforced. Hopefully, this shortcoming will be fixed before the next elections, in order to allow only those candidates who can collect a significant number of signatures. Notably, in last week’s elections, five of the nine candidates received each 1% or less of the total votes.
-- Another problem is that Armenia’s political parties are formed around relatively well-known individuals and not based on political programs or ideology, with the exception of Diaspora parties that were re-established in the homeland after independence. As a result, party members and leaders often switch sides. There are more than 50 political parties in Armenia – way too many for a country of 3 million; many more than those in the United States, a country of 300 million! One would hope that some of these parties would coalesce, to help bring more political stability to the country.
-- Lastly, there is the advantage of incumbency. Candidates and parties in power in most countries have a natural advantage over those challenging them in elections. For example, in the United States, more than 90% of incumbent members of Congress get re-elected by easily defeating their opponents. Beyond the advantage of incumbency, American politicians get re-elected because they cater to the needs of their constituents, while many Armenian elected officials seem oblivious to the needs of the public. Consequently, Armenian citizens, who are unemployed and in abject poverty, feel alienated from those in power. They feel that no one cares for their well-being and have nowhere to turn. At election time, these disadvantaged citizens express their displeasure at the authorities and cast a protest vote by supporting the opposition. Thus, they vote not so much for a particular candidate or party, but against those in power.
As I have written previously, elections in Armenia cannot be improved in isolation from changes in social values and political culture. Until then, let’s hope that this latest episode of post-election upheaval has a peaceful resolution.