The snap parliamentary elections of December 9 will be, unequivocally, a watershed moment in Armenia’s post-Soviet history, as it will provide the foundational basis of consolidating the Velvet Revolution and giving the country’s democratic forces an opportunity to live up to the promises that they have made: modernization of the economy and democratization of the political system. But just as importantly, this will also be a qualitatively higher electoral cycle: the probability of electoral fraud remains quite low, thus reinforcing trust in the electoral process, while, at the same time, the candidates making up the party lists are primarily filled with technocrats, experts, former journalists, experienced politicians, and qualified public servants. Contextually, this is going to be a rare electoral cycle where economic power, informal networks, pseudo-criminal connections, and abuse of state resources will remain isolated from the qualitative nature of the elections. An extension of these developments will also formulate the answer to a lingering question that everyone, especially those in the international community, have been pondering: has Armenia truly undergone a democratic breakthrough?
Collectively, these considerations presuppose that the qualitative nature of the parliamentary elections will be hinged on two factors: first, the quality of the candidates presented within the lists of the participating parties, and second, the issues and policies that the parties will be running on. Specifically, will Armenian society be privy to actual policy debates, introduction of broad party platforms, and well-developed visions for the future of the country? Per Armenia’s electoral code, parties are not permitted to begin campaigning until November 26, and as such, the full scope and extent of party platforms, policy visions, and hopefully, elevated discourse on such issues, will become more evident then. As such, at this stage, we may at least consider one broad area, a discourse on the qualitative nature of the candidates from the pertinent political forces participating in the snap elections, and leave the area of policy discourse for later when campaign season begins.
The political forces participating in the parliamentary elections will be defined as relevant primarily by two main qualifiers: the probability of the given party/bloc of being competitive and having an actual chance of entering parliament, and, the relative history, reputation, and size of the party, and by extension, their capacity to influence and effect the policy discourse during the campaign period. In this context, of the 11 political forces participating in the elections, only six meet this criteria: My Step Alliance, Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP/BHK), Bright Armenia, Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), and Sasna Tsrer Party.
The remaining five parties/blocs are disqualified for lacking substantive relevance, and as such, are excluded from analysis for the following reasons:
-Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law Party), headed by reputable flip-flopper Artur Baghdasaryan, lacks both substance and vision, is primarily known as a spoiler party, and simply has no electoral base, having developed a reputation for being lackeys of the previous ruling regime.
-The Menq Alliance, formed of the Republic Party (formerly part of the Yelq Alliance) and Free Democrats Party, while having supported the Velvet Revolution and are thus positioned as part of the democratizing forces in the country, are nonetheless irrelevant for two reasons. First, the bloc has no electoral base, as the bloc’s leader Aram Sargsyan (brother of deceased war hero Vazgen Sargsyan) primarily relies on his brother’s legacy for political capital, which, in of itself, remains quite limited. Second, as a fringe bloc, with the exception of Artak Zeynalyan (current Minister of Justice) who enjoys some popularity as a war veteran and human rights defender, the Menq Alliance neither contributes original policy discourse to the political arena, nor is it able to compete with the My Step Alliance, or even Bright Armenia, as being a prominent voice for the Velvet Revolution. In this context, the Menq Alliance remains a marginal bloc.
-The Citizen’s Decision Social-Democratic Party is comprised, primarily, of civic society members, who have prominently been active in various facets of civil society advancement, ranging from such issues as women’s rights, domestic violence, to environmental protection. In this context, this party does represent a healthy number of candidates who have substantive and robust knowledge and involvement in important topical and policy areas. Their one problem, however, is that they lack both recognition and political capital. Many of the candidates on the list of this party would have fit in extremely well with either My Step Alliance or even Bright Armenia; however, on their own, as a separate political force, they lack sufficient resources and name recognition to be electorally relevant.
-The National Progress Party includes a set of career professionals and academics, while lacking any candidate with political or civic service experience. Forming a list of relatively unknowns, this party, really, has no substantive relevance in the electoral process. Namely, whereas the Citizen’s Decision Social-Democratic Party, at least, is comprised of civic society activists and policy experts, the National Progress Party appears to be a collection of disconnected professionals without any involvement in the political field.
-The Christian-Democrat Rebirth Party is one of the newer parties formed for this electoral cycle, modeling itself after the European (specifically Germany’s) Christian Democrats, and as such, espousing pro-European, center-right policies. Their field of candidates, however, have very little experience in politics or campaigning, and being virtually unknown, they simply remain a marginal party.
This analysis, of course, does not suggest that all of these parties are completely irrelevant; rather, for the sake of parsimony, they are disqualified from analysis in relation to the relative importance of the other six participants. That being said, if it wasn’t for the horrible reputation of Artur Baghdasaryan, or his equally distasteful side-kick Heghine Bisharyan, Orinats Yerkir party, for example, has in the past presented interesting policy proposals for middle-class businesses and macro-economic growth. Thus, the party may possibly have relevance in the future, but as it stands, it is as equally despised as the former-ruling RPA. On the other side, the Citizen’s Decision Social-Democratic Party has much potential in the future, for its composition suggests qualified operatives with on-hands experience in mobilization, policy discourse, and civic engagement. Thus, my analysis does not suggest that this party, in of itself, is irrelevant; but rather, in comparison to other political forces in the electoral field, it simply remains marginalized.
In diverting the discourse to the relevant political forces, three important points must be made. First, as my prior article noted, and as all existing polls demonstrate, the My Step Alliance will easily dominate the electoral outcome. However, this does not mean that the My Step Alliance will have a monopoly over the narrative and policy discourse that will shape Armenia’s evolving political culture and political participation. Second, the concept of opposition (that is, opposing political forces) has changed in Armenia; meaning, opposition does not entail the zero-sum game of being political enemies as we have had in the past. Rather, we are seeing the development of opposition in ideas, programs, and approaches; in this context, political civility is developing in Armenia’s political culture, which will allow a healthy opposition to be formed even against an extraordinarily popular political leader. Three, as will be addressed in a future article, the policy discourse that will shape the electoral debates will be four-fold: unemployment, corruption, national security, and socio-cultural issues.
The My Step Alliance’s (dominated by Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party) list of its top ten candidates is simply a who’s who of the Velvet Revolution. Beginning with Nikol Pashinyan and ending with Zara Batoyan, the My Step Alliance represents a diverse candidate field of experienced political operatives, policy experts, civic society leaders, and even a representative of war veterans, in the form of the colorful Sasun Mikayelyan. In this context, if the Pashinyan Administration at the outset was criticized for being formed of unexperienced operatives, the last six months have exponentially changed that: the list of candidates from this bloc not only display much political experience now, but also demonstrate leadership experience, bureaucratic stewardship, policy-making, and an impressive connection between political thinking and political activism. Also important to note are the presence of three women in the party’s top 10 list, dominated by Lena Nazaryan, who with her calm and well-balanced demeanor is very likely going to become President of the National Assembly. With this note on competence, I will also like to direct the reader’s attention to perhaps the shrewdest operative in the My Step Alliance: Alen Simonyan. Second to Pashinyan in his rhetorical finesse, Simonyan exudes a level of charisma and sophistication that is generally rare in Armenian politics. In this context, the qualitative scope of the candidates put forth by the My Step Alliance remain exponentially higher than the competing parties, and this qualitative experience is not simply a byproduct of recent experience or rhetorical mastery, but rather, a combination of operatives that bring a diversity of experiences: Zara Batoyan is adored for her work with the disabled; Ararat Mirzoyan has shown himself as a competent deputy Prime Minister; Tigran Avinyan, to the surprise of many, has become a very disciplined technocrat; and Arayik Harutyunyan, though known for his abrasive personality, has been at the forefront of battling corruption and thus reforming the country’s education system.
The Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP) remains the only participant in the elections whose list fields an oligarch; but to be fair, Gagik Tsarukyan is not your traditional oligarch. Having split from the previous regime, even having to suffer the consequences and humiliation of that split, he has demonstrated himself, if not a competent politician, at least a canny survivor. And this is precisely what he did at the cusp of the popular uprising: he tilted the balance by supporting the Velvet Revolution, hence securing his political survival as a self-proclaimed champion of the people. But the PAP suffers from a set of problems that his list of candidates cannot resolve. First, the populist basis of the party always raises concerns of opportunism and unreliability. Second, having for so long been aligned with the previous regimes, and having been politically birthed by second President Robert Kocharyan, PAP has to consistently fight this stigma. And third, the image that the party is simply sustained by Tsarukyan’s money, and nothing more, remains an obstacle that its candidates have to climb. To bypass these concerns, the party has fielded a list of candidates that display technocratic and political experience, thus attempting to project a party of competent professionals. The second candidate on the list, for example, Mikayel Melkumyan, was the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and an experienced economist. In this light, third on the list is Artur Grigoryan, an experienced bureaucrat who served as Minister of Labor and Social Affairs (2010-2012) and recently served as Minister of Energy Infrastructures and Natural Resources.
Diversifying the field of candidates are journalist Iveta Tonoyan and political commentator Arman Abovyan. Collectively, while the qualitative nature of the PAP list may not be up to par with that of My Step Alliance, the list of figures, nonetheless, demonstrate a healthy cadre of experienced, competent political operatives. In this context, it must be noted that the PAP is attempting to posture itself more as a technocratic party and less as a politicized entity by placing the second most-recognized face of the party, Naira Zorabyan, fourth on the list. Known for being the attack-dog of her party, Zorabyan has a reputation for being aggressive and outspoken, at times descending into vitriol that eventually requires backtracking. By curtailing her prominence, Tsarukyan is attempting to send the message that PAP will be a constructive party that complements the endeavors of the parliamentary majority, as opposed to being an aggressive and vocal opposition.
Bright Armenia also contributes to the qualitative nature of the electoral process by presenting a list of candidates that were not only prominent in the Velvet Revolution, but also are unafraid to criticize and disagree with their allies from the My Step Alliance. Led by Edmon Marukyan, Bright Armenia presents a posture of refinement and elevated discourse, with its members displaying a penchant for nuanced debate on policies as well as political developments. Less bombastic and rhetorical than its My Step Alliance allies, Bright Armenia represents a very unique alternative to a faction of the Velvet Revolution that do not fully fit in with Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party. This is best highlighted by the star of the party Mane Tandilyan, who recently was the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs in the Pashinyan Administration and displayed no compunctions with publicly disagreeing with Pashinyan and succeeding in having her demands met. Astute and dignified, Tandilyan contributes to the elevated political culture for which the Bright Armenia Party aspires. Supplementing Marukyan and Tandilyan are a set of high quality candidates within the party list, which include prominent journalist Arman Babajanyan, Yerevan City Council member Ani Samsonyan, and developmental economist Arman Eghiazaryan.
The inclusion of the Sasna Tsrer Party into our analysis is not so much an extension of their contribution of quality candidates, but rather, their ability to effect the electoral discourse. The party, in of itself, has neither substance, electoral base of support, nor quality candidates. However, due to the fact that they have extensive name-recognition as a result of their siege of the Erebuni Police Precinct in 2016, this immediately hurls them into the public discourse, thus giving them a proportionately higher voice then they would otherwise be able to have as a marginal, fringe party. The Sasna Tsrer Party will shape the political discourse in two ways, forcing other actors to confront the issues that they would otherwise prefer not to address: Armenia’s over-reliance on Russia, and, demand for severe justice against the previous regimes. Since the dominant parties would seek to articulate a more moderate posture on most policy issues, the Sasna Tsrer will be forcing and pushing such moderate posturing to the brink, since these are populist issues that resonate well with the common voter, who has a visceral response to such issues, as opposed to a more rational, moderate understanding. In this context, the Sasna Tsrer are going to be relevant in this political cycle because their established name recognition, and the high level of sympathy they enjoy from society, is going to permit them to bring up and take controversial positions on sensitive issues, forcing the other parties to possibly reconsider their moderate posturing.
If the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), a party that is approximately 20 years old, became a so-called political corpse after the Velvet Revolution, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), a party that is over 120 years old, has also joined the same funeral procession. Confused and in a state of flux, the ARF reluctantly supported the Velvet Revolution when recognizing the tide had turned, thus revealing its hand as an opportunistic party whose chameleon tendencies no longer work in Armenian politics. This was further reified when the ARF simply switched sides again and worked with the RPA to consistently obstruct the reforms of the Pashinyan Government. Having lost the luster of being a historically rich party, the ARF has also lost whatever little political capital it enjoys in Armenia, relegating itself, electorally speaking, as a fringe party. Why, then, do we consider the ARF a relevant political force in this election cycle, considering the obvious fact that they do not stand any chance of attaining the minimal outcome in the parliamentary elections? Quite simple: the Diaspora. The extraordinary relevance of the Diaspora in Armenia cannot be overstated, and the level of strength that the ARF enjoys in the larger Armenian communities of the Diaspora also cannot be overstated. To this end, due to the entrenched powers of the ARF within the social, political, and cultural fabric of the various Armenian Diaspora communities, the ARF still displays relevance in Armenian politics. That we will not spend time discussing the quality of their list of candidates is quite obvious: they are irrelevant. What is relevant is the cognizance by the Armenian political forces of the ARF’s power in the Diaspora, and as such, while noting the relative disconnect between Armenia’s ARF and that of the Diaspora, the fact of the matter means that the ARF is a powerful and unique brand name, and clinging to this brand, albeit in an incompetent fashion, the Armenian branch of the ARF will thus remain relevant.
Within the context of our discourse on quality, the party that brings the most experience to the electoral field remains the previous party of power, the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA). Seeking to shed the party’s image of being dominated by oligarchs, corrupt informal networks, and pseudo-criminal operatives, the RPA has presented a list of highly-experienced bureaucrats and politicians, thus cleansing the party of its oligarchic image. Leading the list is Vigen Sargsyan, former Defense Minister and protege of third president and ousted Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan. Thus, victimized by the sins of his political father, Vigen Sargsyan, a highly competent bureaucrat, will be seeking to rebrand the RPA as a socially conservative party defined by national security and traditional cultural values. Being the most unpopular party in the country (disapproval rating is over 60 percent), the RPA is desperately seeking to scratch and crawl into Parliament with the minimum threshold. The party’s strategy, however, remains rather incoherent, considering the candidates it is fielding. The second candidate on the party list is Arpine Hovhannisyan, former Minister of Justice and most recently Deputy Speaker of Parliament. The darling of the RPA, and formerly a rising star, she is well-spoken and fairly refined. Her problem, however, is that she is politically inane, tone deaf, and unwillingly has become a poster-child for powerful women who abdicate their feminine strength in service to their patriarchal masters. This unified blind devotion to servitude include two other well-known individuals in the party list: prolific sycophant Armen Ashotyan, and cry-baby extraordinaire Eduard Sharmazanov. My polemical thrust aside, it should be noted that these remain the young, well-educated cadres of the party, and a such, the party assumes these candidates as its future.
The more interesting development, however, is how the RPA’s desperate attempt to infuse new blood has led to the inclusion of two candidates into their list. One of these, placed third on the list, is Davit Shahnazaryan, a founding member of the Armenian National Movement (ANM), National Security Minister under Levon Ter-Petrosyan (also an in-law of the latter), and a life-long critic of the Kocharyan and Sargsyan Administrations (at least until recently). The astonishing aspect here is that the legacy of the ANM remains extraordinarily negative, and so including a leftover from the Ter-Petrosyan Administration clearly demonstrates the utter disconnect between the RPA’s understanding of the electoral field and the actual political preferences of the Armenian voter. A more telling inclusion, however, is that of Menua Harutyunyan, a shadowy advisor to the RPA who for years has shaped the ideological structure of the party, but has refrained from public engagement. His inclusion is quite indicative of the RPA’s state of despair: they really cannot find any new people. What, then, can we observe from the former-dominant party’s list of candidates? Well, where they have experience, this experience in tempered by incompetence; where they have expertise, this expertise is tempered by corruption; and where they have potential, this potential is tempered by lack of character. The RPA remains what it has always been, a morally and politically bankrupt collection of self-serving pseudo-intellectuals. That Davit Shahnazaryan has joined this collective only goes to further re-confirm this point!
If we were to undertake an aggregate view of the candidate pool in this snap election, a cursory review of the quality of the candidates point out few general observations. First, not only is the level of education of the candidates, collectively, quite high, but more so, there are high number of them who were educated in American or European institutions. This is an important break from the candidate pool of years past where education levels were comical, and the top party candidates were dominated by moneyed interests, with no regard to bureaucratic or technocratic quality. Second, the pool of candidates also display an impressive aggregation of political experience, whether this includes working in the bureaucracy, legislature, or civic society: the pattern displays a high level of informed, constructive political activists. Third, the field of candidates are perhaps the youngest in recent political memory, which means that this National Assembly that will be elected on December 9 will be the youngest Armenia has produced. And fourth, with the exception of PAP, but even when controlling for Gagik Tsarukyan, the pool of candidates, at the aggregate, are perhaps the economically poorest collection of people to ever run for office in Armenia’s post-Soviet history. With the de facto purging of oligarchic and moneyed interests, the candidate field is primarily composed from the middle-class strata, a qualitative indicator that the system will be dominated through meritocracy. In conclusion, then, between levels of education, political experience, and meritocratic qualification, Armenia’s citizenry will have the privilege, for the first time in a very long time, to elect a National Assembly that is qualitatively higher than most can remember in their lifetime.