By Irina Hovannisian
Armenian women look set to remain grossly underrepresented in their country’s parliament, despite a record-high number of female candidates in the upcoming elections.
As many as 353 women are vying for the 131 seats in the heavily male-dominated National Assembly. The overwhelming majority of them have had their names included on the proportional representation lists of 28 parties that have filed for registration with the Central Election Commission.
Under Armenia’s recently amended Electoral Code, at least 15 percent of places in the party slates must be reserved for women. The threshold, previously set at 5 percent, was raised with the aim of boosting female presence in the Armenian parliament, which is the lowest in the South Caucasus. Only seven members of the outgoing legislature are women.
The increased number of women among the party candidates is thus the result of the new legal requirement. On closer inspection, though, it becomes obvious that only a fraction of them stand a good chance of winning a parliament mandate.
The election favorite, the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), is a case in point. Only three of its candidates seem to be in a position to enter the National Assembly. The other presumed frontrunner, the Prosperous Armenia Party of government-connected tycoon Gagik Tsarukian, has set aside more room for potential female lawmakers. Even so, their number is unlikely to be markedly higher than that of those representing the HHK.
Some opposition parties are even more male-dominated. Those include the radical Hanrapetutyun party of Aram Sarkisian and Artashes Geghamian’s National Unity Party. As the Hanrapetutyun spokesman, Suren Sureniants, admitted, “For us, the women occupy the first place in areas beyond politics.”
The most-female oriented, in relative terms, contenders are three other opposition parties led by former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, former Nagorno-Karabakh military chief Samvel Babayan and veteran opposition parliamentarian Shavarsh Kocharian. Women occupy second places in their respective lists. Two of them are quite prominent: former human rights Ombudsperson Larisa Alaverdian and Hranush Kharatian, a sociologist heading a government department on religious and minority affairs. Still, none of these parties may succeed in polling at least 5 percent of the vote, the legal minimum for getting parliament seats under the proportional system.
Two incumbent parliamentarians, Heghine Bisharian and Alvard Petrosian, are third and fourth on the electoral lists of the opposition Orinats Yerkir Party and the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) respectively. Dashnaktsutyun might also have another woman in the next National Assembly. But Ruzanna Arakelian would get elected only if the nationalist party gets at least 12 percent of the vote.
“I want to believe that they see the need for women’s involvement,” Arakelian told RFE/RL, referring to the Armenian political elite. “They can’t be representative of the entire society without having more women on board.”
Only nine women have joined the race in single-mandate constituencies across Armenia, and hardly any of them is seen as having a real chance of defeating their male rivals. Orinats Yerkir’s Sonia Gevorgian, is facing the uphill task of unseating Hakob Hakobian, a prominent war veteran and businessman who holds sway in Yerevan’s western Malatia-Sebastia district.
“I will be in combative spirits,” said Gevorgian. “Politics must not be the exclusive domain of men anymore. Women must get involved too.”
Theater actress Zhasmen Asrian, nominated by a little-known party, is up against nine men in another Yerevan district. One of them, an HHK-connected businessman, is widely regarded as the frontrunner.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Asrian compared the current Armenian parliament to an amateur theater staffed with inept actors. “There are people in the National Assembly who did not graduate from a theater school but are trying to playact,” she said. “They fail badly in that exercise.”
Meanwhile, ordinary Armenian men seem to support greater female participation in Armenia’s political life. A random poll on the streets of Yerevan showed that many are disillusioned with fellow men dominating parliamentary proceedings. “Women would do a better job than men,” said one of them.
Another man was angry about wealthy businessmen that make up a considerable part of the current Armenian parliament. “They are shameless,” he said. “They don’t pay taxes, steal from the people, and privatize state property for a pittance. Women would change things a lot.”