As with a number of other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, Armenia has a track record of flawed elections with little genuine effort being made in the past to change. Armenia’s 2007 parliamentary elections were marred by systemic irregularities, while the 2008 presidential elections were tainted by election fraud and violence that resulted in several deaths.
These elections were the first under a new election law, and most Armenians, according to a Gallup poll, believed they would be freer and fairer than hitherto. The fact that all eight parties were able to register without any difficulty and campaign freely, suggested a good start. The election and the pre-election period were closely monitored by a number of different international organizations. The EU had stressed that as part of its “more for more” approach one of the keys to further deepening relations (including additional financial aid/support) would be to demonstrate greater commitment to EU values, including holding elections in line with international standards.
Compared to previous elections it is clear that progress was made. But of course we cannot say these elections were wholly free and fair because it is obvious they were not. Many serious problems, including a failure to implement some important aspects of the new electoral code, still remain and need to be addressed. While observers noted a campaign environment that generally respected the freedoms of assembly and expression, and candidates were, for the most part, able to campaign freely, the general lack of confidence in the integrity of the process amongst political parties and the general public remains an issue of great concern.
In their 13-page preliminary conclusions of May 7, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), PACE and the European Parliament characterized the elections as “a competitive, vibrant and largely peaceful campaign.” It goes on to focus on shortcomings and violations, citing “an unequal playing field due to violations of campaign provisions and cases of pressure on voters, as well as deficiencies in the complaints and appeals process were cause for concern.” Francois-Xavier de Donnea, head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation, stated “Armenia deserves recognition for its electoral reforms and its open and peaceful campaign environment, but in this race several stakeholders too often failed to comply with the law, and election commissions too often failed to enforce it. As a result, the international commitments to which Armenia has freely subscribed were not always respected.” However, we should recall the comments from the head of the European Parliament delegation to the parliamentary elections in Armenia, Krzysztof Lisek, who said: “I cannot stress enough how important it is to see these elections and our preliminary findings in the broader context and as the beginning of the process, not the end. Our final recommendations, once they are published, should be taken as the goal to achieve in view of the upcoming presidential election.” This is an extremely important point.
The EU foreign policy chief, Baroness Catherine Ashton, welcomed the efforts by the Armenian authorities but also concluded the need to address a number of issues in order to fully meet internationally recognized democratic standards and address the shortcomings identified ahead of the 2013 presidential elections. Still I believe the result will help Yerevan in its negotiations with the EU for an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement.
While Armenia will now have a more pluralistic and representative parliament, given that seven parties passed the 7 percent threshold, the fact that the coalition government of President Serzh Sarksyan’s Republic Party has a majority, probably means there will be little opportunity for the opposition to have significant impact on legislation.
In terms of Armenia’s foreign policy nothing is likely to change. Sarksyan will be gearing up for the 2013 presidential elections. He will likely focus on the socio-economic demands of the people. There is a lot of chatter about his main competitor being former President Robert Kocharian, who Richard Giragosian, a Yerevan-based think-tanker, recently labeled the “Moby-Dick” of Armenian politics -- “Everyone is looking for him, thinking about him and worried about him.” Frankly, what Armenia really needs, as do many other countries in this region, is a new generation of younger, educated and modern leaders to replace the present “club of pensioners” that keeps being regurgitated.
Armenia has a challenging period ahead, and I hope that lessons will be learned from these elections and that the recommendations from the international monitors will be adhered to. Each step made, no matter how small, is to be welcomed and built on.