By Armen Zakarian
The Armenian parliament approved on Wednesday controversial changes in the country’s electoral system that favor Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and his political allies. Deputies, most of them elected from single-mandate constituencies, voted overwhelmingly to reduce from 94 to 75the number of parliament seats contested under the system of proportional representation.
The move could cause a major rift between the two biggest political groups supporting President Robert Kocharian: Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun).
Dashnaktsutyun’s leader, Vahan Hovannisian, accused the Republicans and their allies of backtracking on earlier multi-party agreements and threatened to break off cooperation with them. “First of all, ladies and gentlemen, political agreements must be respected,” he told the HHK-led parliament majority. “Otherwise, further agreements will become impossible or artificial.”
A serious discord between the two influential parties would complicate Kocharian’s efforts to consolidate his supporters ahead of next spring’s presidential elections in which he will seek a second five-year term in office. Kocharian was instrumental in the sweeping electoral reform of December 2000 which set the number of parliament seats allocated under the so-called majoritarian and party-list systems at 37 and 94 respectively.
Under the changes approved by the National Assembly in the first reading that ratio will now be 56 to 75.
Dashnaktsutyun is represented in Markarian’s cabinet with two ministers and aspires to an even greater political role. Just like virtually other parties, it has fared extremely poorly in the single-mandate constituencies against wealthy candidates linked to the government. The latter have been widely accused of resorting to vote buying and other illegal practices during the previous elections held in May 1999. Many of them joined the HHK when it was founded by the late Vazgen Sarkisian earlier in 1999.
All parliamentary parties except the HHK voted against the changes. But the latter gained the upper hand, having the support of several deputies who are not affiliated with any party but tend to support the government on major issues. The HHK’s parliamentary leader, Galust Sahakian, claimed that the Republicans decided to change the electoral system because Armenian parties have failed to “get stronger” since 2000 and continue to have “weak programs.”
The claims were brushed aside by critics of the government initiative. Dashnaktsutyun’s Armen Rustamian said Markarian and his party are in fact seeking to improve their chances in the next parliamentary elections due in May 2003. Artur Baghdasarian, leader of the pro-Kocharian Orinats Yerkir party, likewise said that many Republicans feel that they can not get elected to the next parliament under the system of proportional representation.
The vast majority of Armenian parties have long argued that proportional representation makes vote rigging more difficult and fosters development of a multi-party democracy. Kocharian had endorsed those arguments in late 2000. His current position on the matter is not yet known.