The evolving political configurations in Armenia reached their most recent apex with the strategic resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the underlying objective of which was to pave the way for snap parliamentary elections in December of 2018. The prevailing narrative of the Velvet Revolution has intrinsically emphasized the complete supplanting of Armenia’s political system, and while the supplanting of the executive crystalized upon Pashinyan’s assumption of the position of Prime Minister, the legislative branch remained dominated by the gatekeepers of the previous regime, the Republican Party (RPA).
Pashinyan’s resignation, of course, does not alter the power configurations in the short term, since this is primarily a formality, for he will continue to serve as acting or interim Prime Minister until the snap elections. The more conclusive development, if one can call it such, has been the reluctant agreement by the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) to refrain from presenting a nominee for Prime Minister, and as such, abide by the projected constitutional outcome: after two failed attempts to nominate a candidate for Prime Minister within a 14 day timespan, the National Assembly will dissolve, thus paving the way for pre-term elections (which the Constitution requires within 45 days after the dissolution). The overall strategy, then, remains quite straightforward: Pashinyan formally resigns as PM, but does not give up any formal powers, and the current political configurations are sustained until December, when snap elections will determine the consequent configurations of Armenian politics.
While the prevailing perception is that Pashinyan’s Civic Contract will easily dominate the Parliamentary elections, similar to their impressive performance in the Yerevan Municipal elections, the more refined questions revolve around what this victory will look like, which of the competing electoral forces will join Civic Contract in Parliament (whether as allies or opposition), and more importantly, upon the final consolidation of the Velvet Revolution, whether Armenia’s political field will see a degree of pluralism. Contextually, it is highly relevant how the political configurations of Armenian politics will develop after the snap elections, and further, can projections be made concerning quality of governance that will inherently require diversity of political forces, as opposed to a monopolized political field?
Will There Be Political Pluralism in Armenia After the December Elections
Since the victory of Pashinyan’s Civic Contract is a foregone conclusion, two important questions pose themselves. First, will there be political pluralism in the next Parliament, and second, will there be an opposition party? The first question, which concerns Armenia’s broader structural democratization, is more important at this stage than the second question. Meaning, we honestly cannot expect an opposition party to perform well in the snap elections considering Armenia’s current political climate: the electoral field is not conducive to anything or anyone that stands as opposition to Pashinyan. But the first question remains highly interesting, considering Pashinyan’s declaration that Civic Contract will not participate in the snap elections as part of the Yelk Alliance, and as such, it is severing electoral ties with the other partners in Yelk - Bright Armenia and Republic Party. Does this development negate or actually advance pluralism? Well, this will depend on how well Bright Armenia and Republic Party (likely participating as the Luys Alliance) will perform. If the Yelk Alliance sustained itself, its electoral dominance would obviously have been an extension of Pashinyan’s stature, and in this case, Bright Armenia and Republic Party would merely be riding Civic Contract’s coattail. Thus, a single coalition will dominate the National Assembly to its maximum proportionality. In this specific instance, then, the Yelk Alliance would not be conducive to pluralism. However, with Bright Armenia and Republic Party forming a separate electoral faction, should they surpass the coalition threshold of 7 percent (or 6 percent if Electoral Code reforms are passed in parliament), this would actually introduce a degree of pluralism in the political arena. The probability of this happening, though, will be addressed later.
Is Pashinyan being politically greedy by not sharing his immense popularity, or does he have legitimate concerns with his coalition partners? It appears to be a little bit of both! Purely from a rational-choice perspective, Pashinyan has no reason to carry other parties, and if he can consolidate legislative power by himself, he has no rational reason to share the political spoils. Further, Pashinyan also has to appease a broad range of actors from his party and civic society that were instrumental to his success, and consolidating these broad array of actors under a singular party which he dominates is far more politically efficient than giving space to other political parties in a coalition. In this context, when building a political machine, which is what Pashinyan is orchestrating, rules of the game require singular dominance, not power-sharing. Pashinyan’s position appears to be quite simple: my political capital is only for my party!
On the other hand, however, relations between Civic Contract and its coalition partners have been both tense, and during the Yerevan Municipal elections, burst into the open fighting. In this context, not only does Pashinyan not need his Yelk allies, but he also has severe reservations about them. During the initial stages of the Velvet Revolution, for example, Bright Armenia and Republic Party did not partake in the street protests, and furthermore, displayed a great deal of unease with what Pashinyan was doing. Confounding this was continuous inter-coalition bickering between the sides, and more specifically, Pashinyan’s strategic co-opting of Labor and Social Affairs Minister Mane Tandilyan (prominent Bright Armenia member who resigned from the party). Further complicating the relationship was the public fallout during the Yerevan Municipal elections, when head of the Republic Party, Armen Sargsyan, unleashed a diatribe against Pashinyan, criticizing the Prime Minister’s rigid stance against members of the former regime, accusing Pashinyan of abusing and weaponizing the concept of “counter-revolutionary,” and more problematically, threatening Pashinyan that the Republic Party might complicate the government’s endeavor of snap elections. While these, of course, were rather empty threats, they did, however, indicate the growing split within the bloc, and more importantly, the level of distrust between the parties.
Contextually, these developments are quite important because if the Luys Alliance manages to enter Parliament, we can expect a certain degree of pluralism in Armenian politics. Meaning, while they will not form an opposition (formally), they will, from time to time, dissent and present opposing views or criticisms of the government. In this context, the Luys Alliance as a separate electoral force will be far more relevant to Armenia’s democratization than it would as a hypothetical junior partner in Yelk.
In this light, it is also incumbent to provide an assessment of the Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP/BHK), and presuming its ability to meet the electoral threshold, whether it would contribute to pluralism in the political arena, or join Civic Contract in a grand coalition? PAP remains the second prominent political party after Civic Contract, but the rate of their electoral performance after the Yerevan Municipal elections was at such a disparity in relation to Civic Contract, that they appear more as a marginal party than a potential opposition. Furthermore, whatever popularity the party had due to the leadership of tycoon Gagik Tsarukyan, this very likely took a hit when the Tsarukyan Bloc (comprised mostly of the PAP) joined the RPA and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) on October 2 to vote for the “counter-revolution bill” sponsored by the RPA, which sought to obstruct the snap elections. This presumed act of political disloyalty had immediate and detrimental consequences for the PAP, and while current survey data is not available, it is not too hard to infer that their popularity has taken a severe hit. Their last minute bandwagoning during the Velvet Revolution, similar to the ARF, which had brought forth indications of sheer opportunism, were only confirmed by these developments. Conversely, PAP was able to tentatively save face when Tsarukyan repented the misjudgment of his acolytes and reconfirmed Pashinyan (through a signed memorandum) that his party will, contrary to the bill it had voted for, support snap elections.
What Will be the Electoral Outcome?
In an expansive survey undertaken by the International Republican Institute (IRI), coupled with electoral outcomes from the Yerevan Municipal elections, a certain level of important analytical and predictive considerations may be made based on the existing data. The obvious question, of course, is how big Civic Contract’s win will be; but this is followed by more nuanced considerations of how the other electoral factions will perform. According to the IRI survey, which was conducted until August 15 (hence being conducted before the Yerevan Municipal elections), the results indicate disproportionate support for Nikol Pashinyan, whose favorability stands at 91 percent, while Gagik Tsarukyan stands at 56 percent, which is quite close to Edmon Marukyan (leader of Bright Armenia) at 58 percent, while Aram Sargsyan (leader of Republic Party) remains at 51 percent. Considering that Armenia’s politics is highly personalized, Armenian voters equates the leader of the party with the party itself, since parties are neither institutionalized nor are they viewed as independent, substantive entities. The magnitude of a leader’s popularity, then, pays dividends to the given party, especially when the disparity in popularity produces electoral results that are not really competitive; they become profoundly lopsided as the Yerevan Municipal elections illustrated.
Civic Contract’s performance at 81 percent remains commensurate with Pashinyan’s popularity in the survey, while the PAP’s performance at 7 percent and Luys Alliance’s at 5 percent indicates the limited political capital of their leaders. The inability of the ARF to meet the threshold, having only attained 1.62 percent, is indicative of the public’s distrust of a party that for the last 20 years has been consistently equated with the previous regimes. The Yerevan Municipal elections, of course, are not sufficient indicators of any national outcome; however, considering Yerevan’s size, and the city’s relevance as the very heart of the country’s political world, it does allow us to undertake some projections. Furthermore, considering that Pashinyan is equally, if not more, popular in the regions/Marzs of Armenia, the over 80 percent performance in Yerevan may very likely sustain itself throughout the country.
But here is a very important factor to take into consideration: after securing 67 percent, Civic Contract’s performance, per Armenia’s Electoral Code, will simply not matter! Regardless of how big Civic Contract’s margin of victory, Armenia’s electoral code specifies that 33 percent of the seats in the National Assembly have to be allocated to the other/opposition parties. In this context, any political party/bloc that passes the threshold will have seats distributed accordingly to satisfice the 33 percent. To this end, the best that Civic Contract can do, proportionally speaking, is to receive 67 percent of the seats in Parliament. Within this context, Civil Contract’s capacity to secure votes above the 67 percent percentile (hence commensurate seats in parliament), while highly impressive, will not pay legislative dividends. In this sense, the discourse on pluralism becomes rather important, because there remains 33 percent of seats that can be filled by other political forces, hence suggesting that the various parties running separate from Civic Contract is actually more conducive to pluralism.
Noting the performance of some of these parties in the Yerevan elections, and taking into consideration recent developments, how will the 33 percent of the remaining seats be filled in Parliament? Let us begin at the bottom of the ladder with the ARF. Considering the ARF’s dismal performance in Yerevan, the party’s long support and partnership with the ancien regime, and their fairly stubborn defense of their support for the ‘counter-revolutionary bill’ of October 2, there is extremely low probability that the ARF will meet the 5 percent threshold of entering Parliament (or 4 percent if the reforms to the Electoral Code are passed in parliament ahead of the elections). The only hope that the Dashnaks have, and it is a plea in desperation, is to perform excessively high in the region of Armavir, where ARF has traditionally done well. However, considering the Pashinyan Administration’s immense popularity in this region for having arrested the de-facto feudal lord of the region, General Manvel Grigoryan, and having removed the general’s son as mayor of Etchmiadzin and replaced him with a Civic Contract activist, thus giving the city its first female mayor, it is going to be extraordinarily difficult for the ARF to compete and scrap votes away from Civic Contract.
PAP’s 7 percent performance in the Yerevan Municipal elections, although highly disappointing for the party, does suggest sufficient support to pass the threshold and enter Parliament. That being said, two factors need to be considered. First, due to the party’s support of the ‘counter-revolution bill’, there are legitimate grounds to suspect that public trust for the party and its leader have exponentially dropped. This 7 percent performance, at least in Yerevan, would no longer be obtainable considering such developments. Second, and on a different note, Yerevan is not the PAP’s area of strength, as the party’s base remains in the region of Kotayk, specifically the city of Abovyan. Having traditionally performed well in this region, and known for Tsarukyan’s populist philanthropy, it is going to be very interesting to see how PAP performs against Civic Contract in Kotayk. This comparative assessment, however, remains relevant only to the extent of seeing how strong of a performance the PAP can display in Kotayk. In the 2017 Parliamentary elections, for example, PAP secured 44 percent of the vote in Kotayk, and 27 percent of the overall national vote. It may have a healthy chance of targeting the 25 percentile in Kotayk, but nationally, it will come nowhere close to its 27 percent performance; thus, PAP will likely secure the threshold and enter Parliament as a neutral party (neither formal opposition, nor pro-Civic Contract).
The Luys Alliance was able to muster 5 percent in the Yerevan elections in a field in which it had neither the name power, resources, nor a well-established operational base. In this context, the Luys Alliance has a healthy chance of over-performing, considering that Bright Armenia party’s base is not Yerevan, but rather the Lori region, while the Republic Party, due to the legacy of Vazgen Sargsyan (leader Aram Sargsyan’s brother), will seek to outperform in the Ararat region. The ability of the Luys Alliance to garner votes, however, will rely more on Bright Armenia, especially its leader Edmon Marukyan, who is extremely popular in the Lori region, and holds his political base of power in the city of Vanadzor. Bright Armenia’s performance in Vanadzor will determine whether the Luys Alliance is able to meet the 7 percent threshold to enter Parliament.
Collectively, considering that the RPA might not participate in the snap elections, thus saving itself from sheer electoral embarrassment, and noting the steep hill that the ARF has to climb, the highest probability of what the next Parliament will look like remains similar to what the results of the Yerevan Municipal elections produced: maximal dominance by Civic Contract, proportional dispersion for the remaining parties. The only outlier here remains the new Sasna Tsrer Party, formed of former Karabagh veterans that undertook the siege of the Erebuni police department leading to weeks of protests in 2016. While the Sasna Tsrer remain popular, perhaps more in line of being urban legends than political operatives, they may be able to find themselves a niche to capitalize on and pass the threshold. At this stage, with their small base finding some support in the city of Martuni in the region of Gegharkunik, it is difficult to gauge their potential performance, especially considering the fact that the party does not have sufficient resources or networks to campaign and be active throughout the country. Similarly, if previously-well established parties, like Heritage, for example, participated or formed a bloc, it could do quite well in Shirak (or even Syunik), as its presidential candidate Raffi Hovannisyan over-performed in the region in 2013, thus possibly being able to garner sufficient votes to meet the threshold. Overarchingly, the December snap elections will primarily revolve around Civic Contract easily absorbing 67 percent of Parliament, while the distribution of the remaining 33 percent being contingent on which political parties/blocs meet the qualifying threshold.
As these developments are being assessed as part of Armenia’s evolving political configurations, Pashinyan has two distinct decisions to make. On the one hand, he can seek maximal electoral victory. But why would he seek this if he knows that he is curtailed at the 67 percentile in Parliament? Very simple: the claim of a mandate. The larger his electoral base, the more robust Pashinyan can claim a mandate; and with numbers hitting past the 80 percentile, he may very easily claim an absolute mandate. This, however, brings up the second consideration he needs to make: should Armenia have pluralism, or should he exploit his immense popularity and consolidate unmatched political dominance? Simply put, he knows his dominance is quite secure, but the level and extent of this dominance is something that he needs to think through. More importantly, after consolidating the Velvet Revolution, Pashinyan needs to more specifically decide the following: does he want to rule or does he want to govern?