The Armenian parliamentary elections due in May will not simply be a struggle between rival political parties with diverging priorities and platforms. The conduct of the elections, specifically, whether they will be acknowledged as free, fair, and democratic, already threatens to eclipse policy and ideology in the rhetoric of both the ruling coalition and the opposition parties that seek to increase, or gain for the first time, parliamentary representation. Indeed, it is conceivable that the most influential opposition parties may set aside their mutual dislike and join forces in an all-out effort to minimize the potential for electoral fraud.
Serzh Sarkisian, elected president in February 2008 in a ballot his closest challenger claims was rigged, has asserted repeatedly over the past 12 months that the authorities will do all in their power to ensure the May elections are, and are recognized as, the most democratic ever held in Armenia. In his televised New Year address to the nation, Sarkisian said he is determined to "get rid of the flawed perception" that elections are routinely rigged, and appealed to the population to support his efforts
Opposition parties, however, treat such pledges with profound skepticism, not without reason. It is a sad fact that every single election Armenia has held since 1996 has been marred by allegations of malpractice, and at least two of them by deadly violence (in 2003 and 2008).
Opposition suspicions that the authorities will manipulate the outcome of the May elections center primarily on two interlinked phenomena. The first is the division of seats within the National Assembly. In line with constitutional amendments enacted in 2005, 90 of the 131 parliament mandates are distributed according to the proportional system among parties that garner at least 5 percent of the vote (7 percent in the case of blocs), and the remaining 41 in single-mandate constituencies.
It is those 41 seats, of which Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) won 21 in the 2007 parliamentary elections, that give the greatest grounds for concern. Traditionally, many candidates elected in single-mandate constituencies, especially in rural areas, are businessmen with links to the ruling coalition. Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian claimed last September that no fewer that 76 parliamentarians are businessmen who "keep violating the constitution." Their wealth (some of them control economic monopolies) enables them flagrantly to buy the votes of an impoverished electorate. Some of them are said to rule their constituencies like medieval barons.
Statements by President Sarkisian and senior HHK members over the past year suggest a belated realization that such "parliamentary oligarchs" constitute a liability, and that the electorate would prefer a legislature with what the pro-opposition newspaper "Zhamanak" termed "a civilized, intellectual appearance."
That restriction would not, however, solve the problem posed by businessmen elected in single-mandate constituencies. The prime minister said it is still too early to say whether prominent entrepreneurs will be able to seek reelection in their single-mandate constituencies because "we don't know yet who will run in which constituency."
The opposition is convinced that the most effective way to prevent the rigging of results in single-mandate constituencies is to abolish those constituencies altogether. In late November, Raffi Hovannisian, the U.S.–born former foreign minister and head of the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party, addressed an open letter to President Sarkisian
listing 15 measures Hovannisian said would demonstrate that the ruling coalition is serious in its pledges that the May ballot will be free and fair.
They included abolishing the 41 single-mandate constituencies; requiring local election commissions to mark voters' fingers with indelible ink after they cast their ballots (to preclude multiple voting); and excluding either the use of government funds and property for campaigning on behalf of the HHK, or pressure on civil servants and public sector employees (such as directors of schools and hospitals) to guarantee that their subordinates vote for the HHK.
President Sarkisian, however, publicly dismissed Hovannisian's letter as "vicious," and his proposals as unnecessary and a bid to undermine ongoing positive changes intended to preclude election fraud. Sarkisian mentioned specifically amendments to the election code
enacted in May 2011.
Undaunted, Levon Zurabian, a senior member of Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress (HAK), proposed in mid-December that the HAK, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) and Heritage should jointly draft further amendments to the election code and lobby to have them passed before May.
But HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov ruled out any further amendments
to the Election Law. "In any country, two things are needed to hold normal elections: legislative reforms and political will," Sharmazanov told RFE/RL. "We have already carried out the legislative reforms: a new electoral code was adopted several months before the election. And we have the political will."
The HHD and Heritage nonetheless issued a joint statement on December 28 calling for the abolition of the single-mandate constituencies and the election of all 131 parliamentarians under the proportional system.
Senior HHD member Armen Rustamian told journalists that "the single-mandate system gives the authorities an unfair advantage from the outset." He argued that rejection of the joint proposal would send the message that the authorities are determined to manipulate the outcome of the vote in order to remain in power.
Despite its strained relations with both Heritage and the Dashnaks, the HAK swiftly expressed support for what it termed an "important and necessary step towards ensuring the legitimacy and transparency of the elections." "The Congress is ready to cooperate on this issue with all political forces," it said in a statement. The Free Democrats, whose founders were eased out of the HAK in 2010, similarly endorsed the demand for a transition to a 100-percent proportional system.
Meanwhile, former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian has unequivocally backed the demand for a transition to a 100 percent proportional system, which he argued is the only way to guarantee free and fair elections. In a January 31 statement, Oskanian appealed to "all who support the party list approach...not to lose any more time, and soon after the parliamentary hearings on this topic, transform this momentum into a civic movement and focus on holding fair elections." Only a "new political configuration" in parliament can set about implementing the "serious and deep" reforms that Armenia needs, Oskanian said.