Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 April 2014, 14:04 GMT

Armenian Election: "Stakes Could Not be Higher"

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Author Richard Giragosian
Publication Date 27 April 2012
Citation / Document Symbol CRS Issue 639
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Armenian Election: "Stakes Could Not be Higher", 27 April 2012, CRS Issue 639, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fa1152c2.html [accessed 17 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

As Armenians prepare to go to the polls on May 6 to elect a new parliament, the stakes could hardly be higher. This election is one of the biggest challenges the current government has faced, for two main reasons.

First, the public as a whole has become noticeably less apathetic, and expects this election to be run significantly better than previous ones. This does not necessarily mean people believe the government's pledge of a free and fair vote, but it is clear that most want to hold officials to that promise.

This election is also subject to a higher degree of international scrutiny than before, as it is seen as test of the credibility of President Serzh Sargsyan's administration, in terms both of his stated commitment to democracy, and of his sincerity about delivering on pledges he has made.

Another factor that makes this ballot particularly important is that it is the first election since the February 2008 presidential contest, which resulted in clashes between police and opposition supporters that left at least ten people dead and many more injured.

So the forthcoming election offers an important opportunity for the authorities to overcome the legacy of mistrust and of perceived lack of legitimacy that has hung over Sargsyan's administration ever since the crisis.

Unfortunately, however, neither the recent local elections nor the statements coming from officials indicate that the government realises how important this poll is. There are in fact few grounds for confidence that the vote will meet people's expectations.

Nonetheless, the election reflects a major shift in Armenian politics. Specifically, the traditional political model, defined by a conflict between government and opposition, has changed, and the main dynamic is the serious and deepening rivalry within the ruling coalition. This unprecedented rift has even led to violence in the run-up to the election.

The confrontation pits the ruling Republican Party, the country's largest political party led by President Sargsyan, against its erstwhile allies from Prosperous Armenia, a junior partner in the governing coalition. Prosperous Armenia is led by businessman Gagik Tsarukyan, a supporter and close associate of former President Robert Kocharyan.

As the Republican Party attempts to weaken Prosperous Armenia during campaigning, the conflict is escalating. The Republicans may still hold the initiative and enjoy the incumbent's advantage of having "administrative resources" at its disposal, but they are made vulnerable by their over-confidence, exacerbated by a tendency to underestimate their opponents.

Prosperous Armenia has yet to fight back or counter these moves. That suggests that either its leadership has not yet decided on an effective strategy for doing so, or that it is simply unable to respond.

The ruling elite will be further endangered if it ignores popular demands for lasting change and real reforms.

If this election is not run better than previous flawed ballots, there will be a price to pay. The potential consequences are not restricted to international pressure and censure – there will be a reaction from within Armenian society, which is displaying a more dynamic level of civic activism on matters ranging from the environment to broader issues of social inequality. Society has changed, and people are no longer content to witness yet another round of flawed, fixed elections.

This simmering sense of frustration and discontent is rooted in more than the denial of a real choice or voice in political life; it also stems from years of widening wealth disparities and a pronounced lack of economic opportunity for the average Armenian.

This undercurrent of discontent is increasing, especially as the government can no longer claim to be presiding over the kind of economic growth that it used in the past to justify shortcomings in reform and democratisation. The true face of Armenia's economy has been exposed – years of double-digit growth have resulted only in glaringly obvious socioeconomic inequalities.

As well as creating divisions along social and economic lines, the wealth and income disparities are geographic, as well. Economic activity and opportunity are over-concentrated in the capital Yeravan and other urban centres, creating an urban-rural divide and significant regional imbalances. This is underlined by the wide variance in the quality and accessibility of essential public services like health, education and welfare.

Within this broader context, the more fundamental challenge to stability in Armenia is the need for economic change and reform. But unless this election is a great improvement on its predecessors, the government that emerges from it will lack both a firm mandate to lead and the political will to address these economic problems.

To achieve lasting stability and genuine legitimacy, this election must be an opportunity for politicians to learn to govern and not simply rule. If they miss that opportunity, what is now a crisis of confidence could slide into a dangerously explosive situation.

Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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