By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian parliament voted on Thursday to increase the number of its seats contested on the party list basis and curtail President Robert Kocharian’s authority to directly appoint members of various-level commissions holding elections.
The changes were part of a package of additional amendments to the Electoral Code which the Armenian authorities say will complicate chronic vote rigging in the future. However, they were dismissed as insignificant by the parliament’s opposition minority.
The most important amendment raised from 75 to 90 the number of parliament deputies who will be elected under the system of proportional representation in the next elections. The increase will come at the expense of single-mandate constituencies that will be reduced from 56 to 41.
The question of how to elect Armenia’s parliament is important for the outcome of future elections. Virtually all Armenian political groups other than the Republican Party (HHK) of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian have fared poorly in the individual constituencies and prefer the proportional system, saying that it makes electoral fraud more difficult.
The HHK initially opposed any change in the existing electoral system, causing a serious dispute with its two junior coalition partners, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and the Orinats Yerkir Party, late last year. The new ratio of parliament seats results from a compromise agreement reached by them in December after Kocharian’s intervention.
Another highly contentious issue is the formation of the Central Election Commission (CEC) and its territorial divisions. Kocharian until now appointed three of their nine members. Four other commission seats are controlled by the HHK, Dashnaktsutyun, Orinats Yerkir and another pro-presidential party.
Kocharian will now be able to name only member of each of those commissions. Two commission seats will instead be given to the Armenia’s Court of Appeals and the People’s Deputy group of non-partisan deputies loyal to the head of state. That means the Armenian leader and his allies will continue to exercise overwhelming control over the electoral process.
Under another amendment, responsibility for drawing up and maintaining Armenia’s notoriously inaccurate vote registers will be switched from local governments to the national police. Parliament majority leaders said this should reduce glaring omissions in the lists that marred previous Armenian elections.
They also singled out another legal provision that gives more rights to proxies of election candidates. The proxies will now be allowed, for example, to be present at the counting of ballots in any polling station.
Mher Shahgeldian, an Orinats Yerkir lawmaker who presented the amendments, said they have been endorsed by the Council of Europe. “European experts consider the amendments an improvement [over the existing law] because they will increase pluralism,” he said.
Officials from the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe say reform of the electoral legislation is essential for holding free and fair elections in Armenia. Armenian opposition leaders, however, are more skeptical, arguing that vote falsifications have always been illegal.
The National Assembly also approved on Thursday amendments to an Armenian law on public gatherings which the Council of Europe and the OSCE say runs counter to the European Convention on Human Rights. Parliament majority leaders say the amendments will guarantee freedom of assembly while the opposition considers them cosmetic.
(Photolur photo: People's Deputy leader Karen Karapetian and members of his group attending the parliament session.)