Democracy Is Held Back in Armenia

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By Viken Berberian – The  New York Times

Viken Berberian is a writer based in Yerevan, Armenia.

YEREVAN, Armenia — On Tuesday, electoral arithmetic defeated democratic sentiment in Armenia after the Republican Party of Armenia, the majority party, used its numerical strength to back a discredited government and block the election of the opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan as the new prime minister.

A chorus of defiant honks expressing the collective angst filled the streets of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, as the disappointing result became public. Tens of thousands of people had been singing and chanting at the Republic Square near the parliament throughout the day in support of Mr. Pashinyan’s election.

Mr. Pashinyan, a former crusading journalist and opposition leader, had led the massive protests against the government in April, which culminated in the resignation of the former president and prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan.

The opposition leader has called upon his supporters to continue civil disobedience and block roads, railways and airports.

A power grab by Mr. Sargsyan, who was president from April 2008 to April 2018, triggered the demonstrations that united the fragmented opposition and brought together university students, programmers, teachers, cabdrivers and workers.

As Mr. Sargsyan’s two terms as president were coming to an end, he took a leaf out of the playbook of his friend President Vladimir Putin of Russia and moved to transform Armenia from a presidential system to a parliamentary system of governance.

A controversial referendum in December 2015, which Mr. Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia won, ensured the change to the parliamentary system. On April 17, the Republican Party, which holds the majority of seats in parliament, elected him prime minister.

But most Armenians did not want Mr. Sargsyan to rule the country any longer, especially because he and his party had undermined popular faith in national elections by resorting to rampant vote buying to secure an electoral majority.

A report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the Republican Party government after the last parliamentary election in 2017, observing that “vote-buying had become an entrenched part of the political culture” because of “extreme poverty and a lack of economic opportunities.”

After the 2013 presidential election, the OSCE found a close correlation between high voter turnout and the number of votes received by Mr. Sargsyan. In polling stations where turnout exceeded 80 percent — implausibly higher than the national average of 60 percent — Mr. Sargsyan often received more than 80 percent of the votes, raising “serious problems with voting and counting, and concerns about the integrity of the electoral process.”

Apart from grave misgivings about the fairness of the electoral process, Mr. Sargsyan’s failure to stem the decline of the Armenian economy and growing unemployment have rattled the people. In 2008, during his first year as president, Armenia’s debt-to-G.D.P. ratio was 13.5 percent. Near the end of his second term in the autumn of 2017 it had more than quadrupled to 58 percent, or $6.4 billion.

Armenia, a former Soviet republic that won its independence in 1991, depends heavily on investment from Russia. The economic downturn in Russia and a sharp devaluation of the ruble in 2014 resulting from a collapse in world oil prices hit remittances from Armenians working there, though they have picked up this past year. Remittances to Armenia dropped to $1.5 billion in 2016 from $2.3 billion in 2013.

Since independence, one-third of the population has left the country of 3.2 million in search of a better life. Many went to Russia, home to the largest Armenian diaspora. Mr. Sargsyan’s government has largely failed to reverse the exodus, and unemployment is close to 20 percent.

Political corruption under Mr. Sargsyan has further added to popular anxieties. Armenia was ranked 35 out of 100 in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index last year, with 100 being very clean.

The Republican Party, the largest right-wing party in Armenia, officially adheres to a free-market ideology. Over the years, it became a home to oligarchs, apparatchiks and wealthy businessmen who would benefit from tax exemptions, even as the government struggled to plug a growing budget deficit. Its members profited from a patron-client system that privileged party elites. Inequality rose.

The opposition is a group of minority parties, among them Yelk, or the “Way Out” alliance led by Mr. Pashinyan, the former journalist, who has led the recent demonstrations.

Mr. Pashinyan’s rise is partly a challenge to the legitimacy of previous elections marred by fraud. He went into hiding in the aftermath of a disputed presidential election in 2008 and was wanted by the police on allegations of mass disorder. Mr. Pashinyan was imprisoned in June 2009 until an amnesty was granted to political prisoners about two years later. He was elected to the parliament in May 2012.

On April 22, Mr. Pashinyan was detained after a meeting between him and Mr. Sargsyan ended within minutes. After his arrest, the protests swelled and people filled the streets of Yerevan. The next morning, Mr. Pashinyan was released. A few hours later, Mr. Sargsyan resigned, conceding that he was wrong and that Mr. Pashinyan was right.

Despite Mr. Sargsyan’s resignation and popular sentiment for political change, the Republican Party chose to use its majority — 58 seats out of 105 — in the parliament on Tuesday to stop Mr. Pashinyan’s election as prime minister. Apart from the opposition votes, he needed six votes from the Republican Party for his election.

On Tuesday, Mr. Pashinyan received the support of 45 members of the parliament, signaling a deepening of the political crisis and a continuation of the peaceful civil disobedience campaign that has often paralyzed the city in the past two weeks.

Mr. Pashinyan warned that if the Republicans do not endorse the political mandate he has won on the street, Armenia would plunge into crisis. A second parliamentary vote to elect the prime minister is expected next week.

The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2022, but if parliament fails twice to elect a new prime minister, snap elections must be held. If the next round of elections are fair and accountable, the Republican Party’s grip on governance will be smashed and the party will be out of power for the first time in decades. It will also restore integrity in the electoral process and set the foundation for a more inclusive and open society.

Correction:

An earlier version of this article misstated where people were singing and chanting in Yerevan, Armenia. It was at the Republic Square near the Parliament, not outside the Parliament.

Viken Berberian is the author of the novels “Das Kapital” and “The Cyclist.”

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