In Lieu of a Preface
I started writing this article on April 19, when the vote in the National Assembly on Serzh Sargsyan becoming prime minister had just taken place and it was not at all clear what kind of outcome the political movement that was gathering speed would have, nor could even more dramatic developments have been ruled out. The intention of the article was clear: to identify certain principles of the development of the political system, laying out for many years the circumstances that were delaying the formation of participatory political institutions or, at best, simulating them. So it was important not only to diagnos, but also present certain means of fulfilling those principles with concrete proposals. Much has taken place very quickly during this past week and now there is a need, more than ever, to review particular events. Nevertheless, the central idea of this article, was and continues to be current, regardless of the names of the main political actors or the proportional powers of the political forces. This gives me hope that my claim is well-founded and stems from the necessity of achieving long-term systemic solutions.
Diagnosing the Current Situation
The political institutions that exist in the Republic of Armenia have not been inclusive in nature for a long time, which has been the main reason for continuing political issues, not to say crises. This assessment is neither unique, nor new. It has been expressed through a variety of platforms and by a variety of people, starting with the claims of a scholar of Armenian origin who, for that reason also, is well-known in Armenia, ending with how the concept paper for Constitutional reforms published in 2014 highlighted the non-inclusiveness of political institutions in Armenia. There has not been any lack of expressing this view likewise either among opposition circles, or by the authorities in preceding years. The most important factor, however, is to what extent have inclusive political institutions been formed, to what extent has that principle been taken into account when making decisions in real life, or rather to what extent have decision makers been sincere when that principle needed to be fulfilled. This is where there has been a great rift between the declared principle and real actions.
On April 17, Serzh Sargsyan was appointed the prime minister of the Republic of Armenia by the National Assembly and it seemed to many that the plan of the authorities had already been achieved. At that time, the movement initiated by Nikol Pashinyan – a member of the opposition Yelk Bloc with just nine seats in parliament – was not strong enough to fulfill its demands, but it was also not so weak as to be ignored or scorned by the authorities, as was the case in the early days of the Take a Step campaign. It was starting around this time that Nikol Pashinyan was being called to "return” to parliament in order to discuss issues there, and not on the street.
But did the authorities notice that their own role in Nikol appearing on the streets was immense? This is ultimately about that same Nikol who received the greatest criticism from his own opposition partners in recent years, first as someone who did not enter the No camp of the Constitutional reforms and instead concentrated on setting up an “institutional opposition,” and then as someone who did not take to the streets after the 2017 parliamentary elections, recognizing the election results, although many outlandish and perhaps even systemic irregularities revealed by their own efforts as well as by those of others were never properly investigated by the system (such as the so-called “zibileaks,” the SAS Artak case, the case of the school principals, and others). This is about a representative of that same political force who, in spite of all this, went to parliament, where the majority very quickly reduced the number of standing committees by a quarter in order to deprive that political force of the opportunity of heading one of them. Finally, this is the same Nikol who was physically attacked by another MP, the issue not even being given a hearing by the ethics committee.
As is evident, the decision-makers at the very least failed, if not outright defrauded the principles found in the concept paper of Constitutional reforms and propagated everywhere that the parliament in general and the parliamentary opposition in particular would have the opportunity for oversight, thereby also allowing for effective functioning. I do not think it is unnecessary to add that it was often the very same individuals who publicly declared the importance of those principles and who were the main actors in hindering their fulfillment.
Similarly, and with more far-reaching consequences, the philosophy and spirit of the proportional voting system has been defrauded, which is the main reason for the rift between the public mood and the arrangement of political forces in parliament, therefore also the main reason for this current crisis. Although the public is glued to the events changing by the hour, it is no less important to discuss a certain productive mechanism through which it would be possible to render formal institutions more inclusive and democratic.
The Minimum Requirements for Preparing Snap Elections
I believe it would be difficult to find anyone, even among the parliamentary majority, who does not acknowledge that the National Assembly does not adequately reflect the public mood. The fact that all sides are expressing their willingness to organize extraordinary elections is a testament to this. And truly an effective way out of this situation can only be extraordinary parliamentary elections. However, what the rules of the game will be in carrying out those elections is essential.
Experience has already demonstrated that certain regulations in the Constitution, the law on political parties, the electoral code, and other legal acts are spent and dangerous. I shall concentrate below on issues related with the Electoral Code itself, both because its amendment is an urgent point on the political agenda and also because its prospects are realistic. The rules of the game should likewise be placed on the table because how the elections should be organized is no less of an important question than who should organize the elections.
In his interview with Petros Ghazaryan on April 25, Nikol Pashinyan outlined three clauses (a central database of fingerprints, a differentiated approach for those who are on the electoral lists but are out of the country, and a separate judicial body that would exclusively deal with crimes related to elections). The second among them I believe to be truly important, about which I have publicly stated some years ago. A few steps remain, some more essential points, I believe, which must be reviewed before the next elections.
In terms of having inclusive political institutions and the logic of proportional voting, the Constitutional demand for a stable majority (article 89.3) and the regulation following from it in the Electoral Code (article 96) making it substantially easier for one party to receive 54 percent of the seats in parliament are both highly controversial. In this way, dealing with other political forces or having the need to cooperate with them are neutralized. This regulation is more in keeping in its philosophy with a majoritarian system working under a “winner takes all” understanding. The suitability of having a stable majority was discussed a great deal during the Constitutional reform process. Its authors claimed that it was a guarantee of avoiding crises of government. It is necessary to add that no such regulation is present in any other country – only in Italy was there a plan to implement such a system, but nothing of the sort ultimately ever happened there. However, the second stage of the stable majority or the clause that guarantees bonus seats is also possible to change until the new elections in case of broad political agreement (two-thirds of the votes of the MPs), because it does not form part of the regulations mentioned in article 202.1 of the Constitution that can only be changed through a referendum.
Such “bonuses” are also provided for in the elections for city councils of the three biggest cities of Armenia. These can likewise be reviewed when amending the Electoral Code.
The second clause that is subject to change is the so-called “rating system” during voting (article 95 of the Electoral Code), which has a few controversial facets. Firstly, the rules of the game have been designed such that the opportunities for political parties with more resources are automatically more open. The main reason for that is the encouragement of competition among members of the same political party, as, in each of the thirteen electoral districts, up to six rated candidates are encouraged to compete among themselves for each vote. In these conditions, the incentive to receive the greatest number of votes are much greater than during the previous majoritarian system when the dominant party would generally field a single candidate in each of the 41 electoral districts. It was sufficient in this case to simply assure more votes than the competition, and very often there were no real competitors.
A second controversial element of this “rating system” is that each vote received by the rated candidate as a result of intra-party competition would automatically be counted, in addition, as a vote for the party, essentially doubling the number of votes received by it. Looking into how things played out during the 2017 elections, it is possible to say that a substantial segment of voters decided who to vote for based on their preference for the individual candidate and not the manifesto of the party to which the candidate belonged, not even conscious of the fact that the vote given to the candidate fielded in the electoral district was what would decide on who would lead Armenia.
What has been described above showcases that the “rating system” makes it much easier to assure a dominant position for parties with financial, human, and administrative resources, reducing the chances of parties with fewer resources. The obscure nature of the electoral process and the fact that citizens were not sufficiently informed or educated on how it works similarly do not help establish inclusive political systems.
Article 97.1 of the Electoral Code is also controversial. It limits the number of parties in parliament that can form coalitions. This unusual limitation which, to my knowledge, does not exist in any other country, were included, I believe, in the electoral code simply based on political or partisan expediency for the 2017 parliamentary elections. Only a year later, it is evident that this limitation acts as a substantial artificial hindrance for agreement on a broad or national coalition in order to form a government, obstructing the assurance that a large number of political forces may come together for the very circumstances currently at play or in order to overcome any other internal or external crisis in future.
It is clear that limiting membership to a coalition simply goes against the logic of the principle of proportionality and it substantially reduces the possibilities for more inclusive political processes. The proportional electoral system simply demands that the political parties that have arrived in parliament proportionally representing various segments of society come to an agreement among each other even if the number of such parties is large.
Following the golden rule, I do not desire to discuss more than three main clauses in this article. I believe that it is already evident that these “innovations” and “creative” solutions were created in order to have very specific outcomes for the April 2017 elections, and it must be admitted that they have fulfilled their intention – for the first time in the history of the Republic of Armenia, a single party received the most percentage ever through proportional voting.
It is painfully clear that this artificial tool box (the bonuses, an electoral process that is very obscure for a majority of voters, etc.) demonstrated that not only is it not fulfilling its political intention, but it also poses a danger for the stability of the political system in Armenia. Ultimately, many protesters out on the streets felt that they had been duped, because it was never clear how their vote for their preferred candidate last April led to deciding who was to be prime minister and president of the country one year later.
I believe that it has been proven within only a year that the rules of the game – non-inclusive, allegedly proportional but in truth outside of the logic of proportionality, and for many generally incomprehensible – can bring about new crises, including the dominance of a single party regardless of what its name may be. Of course the aforementioned are only a few, most essential regulations having to do with the electoral process, although there is also the need for changes in how election disputes are resolved, the financing of political parties and campaigns, and other regulations. It is unfortunate that criticisms were directed a great deal toward these controversial clauses during the rushed process of adopting the Electoral Code, also by me, but they were largely ignored. At this stage, however, more important than the question of the political and professional responsibility of those who designed those regulations is the issue of adopting new rules of the game quickly and in an inclusive manner, which will allow for assuring a new standard during the extraordinary elections that already seem inevitable. Ultimately the intention is not to change the names of the political players, but to change the characteristics of the quality of the system, rendering it more inclusive and participatory.