Armenian elections give birth to oligarchy by Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu*
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan votes during parliamentary elections in Yerevan, Armenia, on May 6. (PHOTO EPA, HAYK BADALYAN)
Parliamentary elections, which had occupied the daily agenda in Armenia and were expected to lead to new developments, were held last week. According to the final results, five parties are eligible for representation in parliament.
Their results in the elections are as follows: the ruling Republican Party (44.05 percent), the Prosperous Armenia Party (30.32 percent), the Armenian National Congress (EUK) (7.07 percent), the Legacy Party (5.76 percent), the Dashnak Party (5.76 percent) and Orinats Yerkir (5.47 percent). Even though the most pressing questions on the election process and the election results refer to transparency issues, the actual issue is the lack of democratization in the former Soviet states.
It is useful to investigate and analyze some developments in the election processes in Armenia and other similar countries in general to better understand how democracy operates in these countries. The partial success of the EUK, the only promising development party for the sake of democracy, the cooperation between the parties to be represented in the parliament, as well as the profile of the party leaders, reflect the general outlook of the political mechanism in Armenia.
The most important developments in 2011 were all relevant to the domestic politics. Legacy Party leader Raffi Hovhannisyan held a hunger strike and the Armenian National Congress organized influential rallies at Opera Square. The alliance between the parties represented in the parliament with the exception of the EUK and the Legacy Party is now called alliance of oligarchs. Remarks by political experts that there were nearly 80 oligarchs in the parliament during the election process were not convincing; the discussion was effectively over after a statement was made that the remaining deputies were also indirectly supported by the oligarchs.
Farewell to businessmen-parliamentarians?
Subsequent to discussions of oligarchy, the Republican Party has declared that it would not nominate the businessmen-parliamentarians in the elections. In reference to this declaration, it was further announced by the party upon instruction of Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan that five businessmen-parliamentarians would quit politics and that 15 others would not be supported by the party. The Republican Party, which also announced that instead of these deputies, young candidates and women would be nominated, sought to address the popular perception of parliament as an assembly of oligarchs. In addition, Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan noted that the army should remain neutral during the election process and that each military officer should make their own decision as an Armenian citizen. Expert opinions suggesting that there is a difference between the existence of oligarchs and the representation of the oligarchs in the parliament have become popular in the media. However, as is usually the case with the businessmen-parliamentarians, who hold 95 percent of the sugar market in the country, they have bought expensive stores along the most popular avenue in Yerevan and have become increasingly influential in the media. The preservation of the status of these influential figures would mean that status quo would remain in domestic and foreign policy. Issues including monopolistic practices, the status quo and corruption in Armenia, where democracy has not been operated without interference since 1991, appear to be the main reason for Armenia’s alienation in the region and increased poverty. In face of this, people feel desperate and believe that the new administrators will preserve the status quo even if power is transferred to other political groups in the elections. Therefore, the statements by the ruling party become meaningful as election promises because the structure of a “parliament of oligarchs” is becoming stronger.
Gagik Tsarukyan, one of the most prominent oligarchs of the Republican Party, and Artur Bagdasaryan, the secretary of the National Security Council, made an alliance; and this bloc started a secret propaganda campaign against the opposition during the election process. The support by former President Robery Kocaryan and former Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan for the parties in this bloc raised the popularity of these groups in the media.
The EUK, the strongest party in the opposition, has initiated a series of political rallies where it argued that the administration was not legitimate. It should be noted that the EUK has played an important role in the development of protest culture in Armenia and in the protests in the aftermath of independence. The young environmentalists who are opposed to the destruction of social programs and the parents whose children died in Karabakh appeared in the protest demonstrations to ensure that this tradition continues. Young people now ask for the reallocation of the military budget into education and the alleviation of unemployment, as well as for the end of regional alienation.
Hovhannisyan’s sit-in protests
Another protest style has been developed by Hovhannisyan, leader of the Legacy Party which has won seats in parliament. Hovhannisyan, who has been trying to attract attention since early 2011, organized sit-in protest demonstrations. Despite not receiving the support of many of his friends for these attempts, the protests attracted the attention of the people. Inevitably, he was harshly criticized by the bloc of ruling parties during this process; the media reported that his son, who lives in the US, was a draft resister. Reports stating that a politician who was working to serve his nation should first teach his son how to become a patriot were not sufficient to prevent Hovhannisyan from receiving huge popular support.
Another part of these elections that attracted attention was the constant interaction between the strong parties and the envoys from foreign countries. Media statements made through the embassies of different countries demonstrated that other countries have been paying attention to the election process in the country. Media statements made in the aftermath of the talks and meetings with the envoys of the US, Germany, Russia and France indicating that the elections were transparent, as well as remarks through the same channels on the improvement of the culture of democracy in the country and the overall economic situation were also important. In addition, the application by the Republican Party, Orinats Yerkir and the Legacy Party during this process for membership of the European People’s Party and their acceptance has attracted international attention.
The Dashnak Party’s election success also shows that it will keep relying on its usual discourse and policy of extreme nationalism. The Dashnak Party, which relinquished its powers during the process of rapprochement with Turkey and warned the ruling party on the process, is popularly known for its attempts to become rich out of political standing. It is predicted that the party, which fails to offer any plausible solution to the economic problems, will seek to put pressure upon the ruling party and administration in respect to the relations with Turkey and to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. However, the presence of other opposition parties in parliament may lead to them reconsidering their decisions and adopting more realistic policies. The current outlook and setting in the parliament may enable analysts and pundits to offer accurate predictions on the results of the presidential elections that will be held next year in Armenia which still struggles with a problem of weak democracy and a lack of political awareness.
*Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu is an analyst at the Center for International Strategy and Security Studies.