Armenia’s leading parliamentary opposition parties have accused the government of going back on its pledge to ensure the introduction of an all-proportional voting system, regarding the so-called ‘rating’ ballots proposed in a recently published draft legislation as a means to retain the current partly majoritarian electoral system.
Most of Armenia’s opposition parties in recent years have sought a change of the current system of parliamentary elections in which 41 members of the 131-seat National Assembly are elected from single-mandate constituencies.
They have insisted that unlike the ballots in which citizens are offered to vote only for lists of candidates presented by political parties, campaigning in elections in single-seat constituencies mostly contested by wealthy individuals with extensive government links is rarely done along political lines, while the focus of candidates’ pledges is mostly improvement of local infrastructure, social aid and other function reserved for local government bodies.
Critics also say that due to this peculiarity such “majoritarian” elections are a major source of vote buying, ballot-box stuffing and other forms of electoral fraud.
A number of recent opposition initiatives to make changes in the Electoral Code to scrap the “majoritarian” elections in favor of all-party-list ballots were rejected by President Serzh Sarkisian’s ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).
Government officials would explain such rejections by the fact that an all-proportional voting system could harm the representation of regions in the one-tier parliament.
Sarkisian and the HHK, however, pledged to reform the Electoral Code to address the opposition’s concerns when they initiated amendments to the country’s Constitution envisaging a transition to a parliamentary form of government.
Some of the parliamentary minority parties, such as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and the Prosperous Armenia Party, embraced the reform and campaigned for the constitutional changes. Other opposition parties, like Heritage and the Armenian National Congress (HAK), which are also known as advocates of an all-proportional voting system, still opposed changes in the Constitution, considering that they were a ploy for Sarkisian to extend his power beyond 2018 when his second and final presidential term expires.
In the wake of a disputed referendum that officially approved the government-advocated changes, the Western government and international organizations urged the Armenian authorities to ensure that the drafting of the new Electoral Code was held in an inclusive manner and the new electoral laws were adopted with broad consensus.
Leading opposition parties and civil society organizations, however, felt they were left out of the process when the government revealed its draft last week, more than a week after submitting it to the Venice Commission, a Council of Europe body advising governments of member states on legal reforms.
The opposition also criticized a number of provisions in the draft, including its purported failure to address the need to hold all-proportional elections.
“In essence, it is not a proportional system, it is attracting people’s votes through a majoritarian vote in a nominally proportional election,” deputy head of the Heritage party Armen Martirosian said in Azatutyun TV’s Sunday Analytical Show with Tamrazian.
Martirosian referred to the fact that under the proposed draft Electoral Code all political parties and blocs of parties participating in parliamentary elections will have to present two electoral lists, with one listing their top candidates for each of the 13 constituencies that Armenia will be divided in.
Authors of the draft legislation explain that this provision will stimulate political parties to also work in the regions and will ensure proper representation of provinces in the one-tier parliament.
Opposition members, however, see ulterior reasons behind the proposed system.
“People no longer vote for Republican Party members,” Martirosian claimed. “But now they will willy-nilly vote for a local candidate, which will automatically give a vote to the Republican Party… In reality, this mechanism amounts to the same majoritarian system, but in its even more sinister form.”
Martirosian assumed that under the proposed system tycoons and local strongmen will continue to influence the choice of people in their constituencies, ensuring the overall victory of the ruling party.
The HAK’s parliamentary leader Levon Zurabian, who was also a guest of Azatutyun TV’s talk show on March 6, agreed with this view.
“If before we had 75 percent of members of parliament elected by party lists and 25 percent elected from single-seat constituencies, then this ratio will, in fact, be changed to 50-50,” he argued. “Only half of the lawmakers will be elected by a classical proportional system, while the other half will be elected by a nominally proportional system that will be majoritarian by its essence.”
Armen Rustamian, of the ARF, however, called the opposition’s approach to the issue “antiscientific”. “This is a truly proportional voting system, because you vote with just one bulletin and for a political party. You cannot vote for a person without giving a vote to a party. In other words, these two votes are in one,” he insisted.