By Haroutiun Khachatrian
Published May 22nd 2003 in Eurasianet.org
Armenia’s parliamentary vote May 25 will likely reflect the divisions in society that have opened since President Robert Kocharian’s controversial re-election just over two months ago. Opinion polls show that no party will be able to win a parliamentary majority, signaling the likelihood of a coalition government.
Under changes to the electoral code adopted in 2002, 75 of the 131 parliament seats at stake in the election will be allotted according to a proportional voting system. To qualify for proportional representation political parties must receive at least 5 percent of the vote. The remaining 56 deputies will be elected in local districts on a first-past-the-post basis.
Heading into the campaign’s final days, polls show pro-presidential and opposition support to be roughly equal. According to the Armenian Sociological Association (ASA), the Ardarutiun (Justice) opposition bloc stands to receive upwards of 12 percent of the vote. Ardarutiun is led by Stepan Demirchian, who was defeated by Kocharian in the controversial March 5 presidential run-off. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
The populist, pro-presidential party, Orinats Yerkir (Land of Law) also will receive roughly 12 percent of the vote, the ASA predicts. Behind the two front-runners, the pro-presidential Republican Party, led by Prime Minister Andranik Margarian, shares third place with National Unity, led by opposition presidential candidate, Artashes Geghamian. Both parties are expected to garner up to 9 percent of the vote.
Gevorg Poghosian, head of the Armenian Sociological Association, said Dashnaktsutiun (the Armenian Revolutionary Federation), a nationalist party that has supported Kocharian in the past, also appeared likely to clear the 5 percent hurdle to obtain parliament seats under the proportional system.
Among the 272 candidates in first-past-the-post contests, observers expect prominent businessmen with unclear party loyalties to carry most seats. Polls show that 35 percent of voters, and 13 percent of voters in Yerevan, were undecided as of May 15.
In admitting the likelihood that the elections would produce a coalition, Kocharian expressed confidence that he will be able to work with the next government. “I think that we can find points of contact with the political parties that support me,” the Mediamax news agency quoted the president as saying May 21. In the event that an opposition-dominated coalition arises from the parliament vote, Defense Minister Serge Sargisian, who served as Kocharian’s campaign manager in the presidential election, has indicated he will resign.
A key question looming in the parliament vote concerns possible electoral fraud. Allegations of voting irregularities marred the presidential campaign and election process. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive.] Political experts suggest the chances of ballot stuffing are reduced in the parliament vote by the fact that pro-presidential parties are now vying against each other. Moreover, a “clean” election seems likely to produce a legislature that, in its fragmentation, will enhance presidential influence. A fractious legislature would serve pro-presidential parties more effectively than tampering with the polls would, some observers say.
In an interview published May 21 by the Ayots Ashkar daily, the chief of the OSCE Monitoring Mission, Robert Barry, said the parliament election campaign “was mainly proceeding in a calm atmosphere” adding that “there was less tension compared to the presidential election.”
A separate constitutional referendum will take place on the same day as the parliament vote. In mid April, when he announced the referendum, Kocharian said a reworked constitution was needed to provide a better balance of power between Armenia’s executive and legislative branches of government. Opposition leaders said that the constitutional changes would enhance presidential authority. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive.] Most voters only received the opportunity May 16 to review the constitutional changes, which were presented as an entirely “new edition of the constitution.” Little effort has been made to highlight the proposed changes to constitution. The referendum will ask voters to either approve or reject the entire “New Edition.”
Political observers in Yerevan note that Kocharian – who initiated the process to amend the constitution -- has in recent weeks adopted a “lukewarm” stance on the referendum. Armen Haroutiunian, a law professor who helped prepare the “New Edition,” likewise expressed ambivalence about the referendum, saying: “Armenia will win irrespective of the outcome.”