Since Armenia’s independence in 1991, the country has moved away from district-based regional representation toward nationwide proportional representation. With the adoption of a new constitution in 1995, the exclusively single-member geographic district system was replaced with the mixed member majoritarian (MMM) system, where representatives from 150 geographic districts were elected through the first-past-the-post system (only one representative, the one with the highest number of votes, is elected from each electoral district) and 40 seats were allocated proportionally to the political parties based on vote share. In the parliamentary elections after 1995, the proportional seats were increased, until the proportional model was fully adopted in 2017.
According to Armenia’s Electoral Code, proportional representation combines a nationwide closed list component with a district-based open list component (known as reytingayin in Armenian). The nationwide closed list consists of two parts: the rank-ordered list of candidates that a political party submits when registering for parliamentary elections and the ethnic minority lists which identifies the candidates nominated for the reserved seats of Armenia’s four largest ethnic minorities, including Yazidis, Russians, Assyrians and Kurds. The current regulations for the nationwide closed list state that it must include a minimum of 80 and a maximum of 300 candidates. The list also must comply with the gender quota requirements and have at least one candidate from each gender in each set of four candidates.
Based on the names on the closed list, thirteen district-based open lists are also created for the thirteen electoral districts of Armenia, which include four electoral districts in the capital Yerevan and one in each of the regions, except for Syunik and Vayots Dzor regions, which are combined into one district. Compared to the nationwide closed list, here candidates are not ranked in a predetermined order and the ones that receive the highest number of individual votes are elected. There are no reserved seats for any of the electoral districts, and their representation in the legislature depends entirely on the support each party receives locally. Dividing the number of eligible voters in each of the districts by 15,000 determines the maximum number of candidates that can be nominated for each. The gender quota requirement states that at least 30% of each open list must be of opposite gender. For perspective, the open list of Tavush region, which has 108,773 registered electors, can include up to seven candidates.
On Election Day, voters receive a separate ballot paper for each of the political parties participating in the election. Voters cast their vote by choosing the ballot paper of the party that they support, placing it in an envelope and dropping it into the ballot box. On the reverse side of each of the ballot papers, the names of the candidates running as part of the party’s open list are mentioned, which is different for all the thirteen districts. Electors are not required but are allowed to select only one nominee from that list. Voters are not allowed to choose one party and a candidate from a different party. Half of the seats of those political forces that pass the minimum electoral threshold, which is 5% for parties and 7% for alliances, will be assigned to candidates on the party’s open list, while the other half to the candidates on the closed list. If the number of allocated seats is an odd number, then the additional seat is chosen from the closed list. For example, during the 2017 parliamentary election Yelk Alliance secured nine seats, five of which were selected from the party’s closed list, while the remaining four from the open list.
It is important to note that the candidates elected from the party’s/alliance's district-based open list are not necessarily the ones with the highest number of votes, but rather the top candidates of those districts where the party received most of its support from. Continuing the example of the Yelk Alliance in 2017, the four district-based open list seats were allocated to the top candidates of those districts that yielded the most support for the alliance. The five closed list seats were assigned to the top five candidates on the alliance’s nationwide closed list, skipping those that were already elected as part of the open list. When Nikol Pashinyan, who was one of the four candidates elected as part of Yelk’s district-based open list, was elected Prime Minister in 2018, his seat was filled by a candidate, who was from the same district and had the next highest number of votes after him.
Reforming the Electoral Code was one of the priorities of PM Pashinyan after he took office in May 2018. A Special Commission on Electoral Reform that was formed to address the issue, as part of its recommendation package, proposed to eliminate the open list component and proportionally allocate the seats in Parliament based on parties’ rank-ordered closed lists only. One of the justifications of the proposal was that the elimination of the open list component and the need for a pen in the voting booth would make it significantly harder for the candidates to bribe, pressure, threaten or physically intimidate voters. Another justification presented by the Commission was that allocating seats based on the ranked closed list would increase the number of women elected to Parliament. Although both the nationwide closed list and district-based open lists are required to comply with certain gender quotas, the latter does not guarantee that female candidates will actually be elected to the legislature.
The recommendations proposed by the Special Commission were voted down by the National Assembly, which at that time was still dominated by the Republican Party of Armenia.
Considering the fact that the population residing outside Yerevan makes up two thirds of the country’s electorate, regional representation in the National Assembly is an important priority. The most effective way to ensure that the needs of those living in the regions are met and their concerns are raised is to have people in decision-making positions who are directly accountable to them. The proportional model that is currently in place does not guarantee that regional representation is proportional to the size of their electorates. For example, although only 32.7% of the electors were based in Yerevan during the 2018 parliamentary elections, the registration addresses of over 57% of the elected Parliament members were in Yerevan.
One reason more MPs are elected from Yerevan rather than from the regions, is that the status quo system is more favourable towards the candidates from Yerevan. It is significantly easier to campaign in the districts of Yerevan, which are geographically close to one another, than to campaign in small towns and dispersed rural areas. Another shortcoming of the current system is connected with the oversight function over campaign expenses of individual candidates. Candidates are legally required to donate all the funds that they need to use for the campaign to the central campaign account and use them with the party’s permission only. In practice, however, they are likely to use unofficial and unreported funds. During the 2018 parliamentary election, there were 1287 open list candidates running for office across the country, while the Oversight and Audit Service of the Central Electoral Commission had (and still has) only three staff members, which made it practically impossible to monitor the individual campaigns of the candidates for possible violations.
The nationwide closed list approach, recommended by the Electoral Reform Commission back in October 2018, would have made regional representation more challenging to achieve. During the last elections, the top ten candidates on the closed lists of My Step Alliance, Prosperous Armenia Party and Bright Armenia Party were predominantly from Yerevan. In fact, Lori and Kotayk were the only two represented regions. If in the future more parties/alliances pass the minimum electoral threshold and the caucus sizes get smaller, the representation of smaller regions including Tavush and Aragatsotn will be further compromised.
To increase regional representation, in 2018 Prosperous Armenia Party suggested to require parties to have at least one candidate in every six candidates of a party’s closed list who has been a permanent resident of a region for the last five years and will continue to live there. This, however, is not a viable option for three main reasons. First of all, the quota is too low, secondly, mostly larger regions will be represented, and finally, the residency requirement would be difficult to enforce in practice.
To guarantee better regional representation, it is recommended to divide the country into three multi-member electoral districts and reserve a proportional number of seats for each, based on its electorate: Yerevan with 33 seats, Northwest (Shirak, Lori, Tavush, Aragatsotn, Kotayk) with 36, and Southeast (Armavir, Ararat, Gegharkunik, Vayots Dzor, Syunik) with 32 seats.
Considering the demographic features of Armenia’s regions, some of which have smaller populations than the others (Syunik, Vayots Dzor, Aragatsotn and Tavush) it is evident that having separate districts for each region is not a preferable option. Although smaller groupings are desirable, it is not possible to divide Armenia’s 10 regions and the capital Yerevan into groups of twos or threes while keeping the districts as close in size as possible.
One of the advantages of closed lists include an easier counting process, since only the total numbers secured by each party will need to be reported. Another advantage is increased cooperation between the candidates of the same party, since instead of working against one another, they will be working together for a common goal, which is advancing the interests of the party. Finally, the process will de-emphasize individuals and shift the focus towards the institutionalization of political parties and larger policy approaches.
The new model would directly link the political fortunes of candidates to the evaluations of non-Yerevan voters, in proportion to their numbers. Thus, it also encourages parties to recruit candidates from those regions. The new model will flatten party hierarchy. A party would have three #1 candidates (one in each district), providing greater leadership depth. If a party sought to hold their own internal primary, they could break a nationwide race into smaller pieces. In general, rewarding the local candidates more directly in accordance with their local support (by electing more MPs from their district list) would incentivize them to be more actively involved in the campaign process, as compared to one national-level contest, where their individual contribution may seem insignificant.
Although there are other possible models that can improve regional representation in the legislature, the three district-based closed list model is best suited to Armenian context.
This project is funded by the UK Government's Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors' and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the UK Government.