Armenia’s governing party consolidated its grip on power following parliamentary elections marred by widespread allegations of vote-buying and voter intimidation.
The governing Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) was the clear victor in the April 2 elections, as expected, winning over 49 percent of the vote and an apparent absolute majority of seats in parliament (55 out of 105). An alliance led by populist oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan was the runner-up with 27 percent of the vote. Two other parties secured seats in the legislature: the Yelk Alliance won just under 8 percent of the vote; and the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation, just under 7 percent.
Another bloc, featuring political heavyweights like former defense minister Seyran Ohanian, 2013 presidential contender Raffi Hovannissian, and former foreign minister Vartan Oskanian, won just over 2 percent and will not be represented in the new parliament.
The Central Election Commission reported that turnout was about 61 percent.
A number of irregularities were reported on Election Day, including an instance in which at least two reporters were attacked as they pursued apparent cases of vote-buying.
Despite the strong indicators of skullduggery, RPA officials sounded a triumphal note in reacting to the results. “This was a victory by all political forces, civil society, by our citizens, indeed, this is not a step, but rather a leap forward,” said Armen Ashotyan, deputy head of the RPA.
These elections were significant in that they set the terms for a new parliamentary system of government, under which executive power is diminished and the authority of the legislative branch is enhanced. The new parliament will elect a largely figurehead president in 2018 when the term of the incumbent, Serzh Sargsyan, runs out. Under the new arrangement, the prime minister will be head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
“Armenia is moving to a new administrative system, and it’s extremely important that these elections instill trust in Armenian citizens and all our partners,” Sargsyan said at a meeting of the observation mission delegation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Sargsyan’s post-2018 plans remain unclear, but critics have argued that the constitutional changes pave the way for him to consolidate power, either by becoming prime minister himself, or by enabling him to continue to wield power behind the scenes.
The CIS monitors gave the elections rave reviews. The conditions under which the vote took place “exceeded even Western countries, who were teaching us how to correctly organize elections,” said Sergey Lebedev, the head of the mission.
Other outside observers were less impressed. “The elections were tainted by credible information about vote-buying, and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies. This contributed to an overall lack of public confidence and trust in the elections,” said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election monitoring mission in its preliminary assessment.
The vote itself was “well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected,” the OSCE statement added.
The leader of the Yelk Alliance, Edmon Marukyan, said that, according to his party’s observations, their vote count was accurate. “So we have no reason not to accept the results,” he told the Armenian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Local rights activists complained that the vote, like many others before it in Armenia, was corrupted by vote-buying and intimidation. The elections represented “the victory of perversion of all democratic institutions,” said Avetik Ishkhanian, a prominent human rights activist and the head of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia.
The RPA enjoyed a big advantage over its electoral rivals, given the large numbers of Armenians who work in state-sector jobs, including teachers, healthcare workers and soldiers. “They [state-sector employees] depend on the government, they have to” vote for it, analyst Ruben Mehrabyan told EurasiaNet. “Considering this, we need to prepare for the next elections starting today, taking all that into account.”
These parliamentary elections saw the introduction of new electronic equipment, including fingerprint scanners, intended to reduce voter fraud. But a few experts said the equipment may have enabled, in some instances, nefarious practices. Many voters were convinced that the fingerprint scanners recorded information about who they voted for. “And it worked, people were scared of those devices,” said analyst Armen Badalyan.
Party activists intent on skewing the results appear to have played on voters’ concerns, Badalyan alleged. “They said that if you took money from the RPA or some other political group and if you dared to vote for someone else, we will see that,” Badalyan said.
The election results were cause for cynicism among many Armenians.
“Many thought that they would wake up in a new Armenia but things went the same way they always do,” Narine Galstyan, a 33-year-old linguist in Yerevan, told EurasiaNet.org. “They have to accept the situation, or understand that other methods are necessary for change.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Armenia and editor of MediaLab.am.