Decision 2007: Will “free and fair” make a difference?

Despite the routine call for free and fair elections and the promise that each will be so, a legitimate vote has never been given so much importance as in these days leading to the May 12 parliamentary election.

Fraudulent elections would be a "lost opportunity" for a "firm relationship" between Yerevan and Brussels.

European Union special representative to the South Caucasus Peter Semneby

An honest election is being attached as a pre-requisite for the republic’s future in ways that far exceed the solemn need to elect a National Assembly.

Most often, we are reminded – by local and foreign authorities – that Armenia stands to gain millions of US dollars in Millennium Challenge money if these elections are conducted democratically. But the presumed goodwill attached to a legitimate voting process extends beyond internal profit and into Armenia’s international welfare.

Specifically, there are allusions suggesting that normal elections would solve Armenia’s foreign-relations problems by positively influencing the settlement of the Karabakh issue.

European officials have said the elections will be a litmus test (Heike Renate Peitch, Ambassador of Germany to Armenia) and a test (Peter Semneby, Special Envoy of the European Union in the South Caucasus) that will define the future relations between Armenia and the European Union.

In commenting on a recent US State Department report in which Armenian control of Karabakh was called “occupation”, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vartan Oskanian, the official most concerned with the quality of the elections, stated that Armenia will fail to win international consent if there are fraudulent elections, even if it were to have 10 foreign ministers.

Does this mean free elections are necessary only for the solution of the Karabakh problem, meaning that the West will positively view the self-determination of Karabakh if the elections are determined to be democratic?

Let’s imagine that Western observers say the election has passed without considerable violations; does it mean there has been democratic election?

“Rigging the vote is equal to national treachery, the betrayal of the movement on the Nagorno-Karabakh problem . . .”

Former Prime Minister and former Minister of Defense and head of National Democratic Union Vazgen Manukyan

The reasonable question of who will emerge as winners of these elections has become secondary to whether they are “free and fair”.

Still, the traditionally-primary issue of who will win should not be dismissed. It is a question more clearly predicted than the issue of election propriety.

Prosperous Armenia, supported by President Robert Kocharyan and the Republican Party supported by Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, will gain the absolute parliament majority and, depending on the number of the seats the two parties gain, the battle for control will evolve primarily between those parties, regardless of whether the elections are judged to be legitimate.

Consequently, a shift of power remains unavailable to Armenian voters, whether their votes are cast cleanly, or by deceit.

Political analyst Yervand Bozoyan says independent of whether the elections are “fair” or “falsified”, there is no democratic electoral system in Armenia and the authorities will never permit elections that could result in change of power.

“Elections are part of a political system. The political system in Armenia is over-centralized, and authorities in the regions are not placed by means of elections. The authorized body of the government there is the marzpet (the head of the local self-administration) who is the lawful master of the region,” Bozoyan says. “If, therefore, the country lacks a system of local self-administration there can be no stable democratic electoral system. If the local system is appointed from the center, then the supervision of the center spreads to the bottom in all spheres and the electoral process is made controllable from above.”

And, the need to hold power over the pyramid, leads to holding charge by any means.

“When elections threaten the incumbent regime, the authorities naturally do not put electoral mechanisms into action, which means falsifications do take place,” Bozoyan says. “If the authorities see no threat to the regime they give the elections their formal approval.” He recalls the presidential election of 1996, when, despite the normal process of voting, it is widely believed that the final outcome was changed after the votes were counted, revealing the incumbent president’s defeat.

(Political analyst Bozoyan, who holds no party affiliation, has been equally critical of the opposition for its failure to unite around a single idea. In 1996 the opposition was united by a general disappointment over liberal economic ideas. In 2003 soviet nostalgia was two-headed: Artashes Geghamyan embodied the party system and the ‘Karen Demirchyan’ brand was embodied by his son Stepan. Now, there are no unifying ideas, although the republic faces equally-important issues.)

“There is no alternative to free and fair elections. Any other path would ruin Armenia’s entire political performance.”

Gagik Tsarukyan, MP, and head of Prosperous Armenia Party

Prior to the recent scandals of shootings and bombings, it seemed possible to believe that these elections would meet international standards for fairness – at least in perception.. Why? Because, in the absence of a potent opposition (splintered as it now is into at least eight parties), the ruling parties feel no threat. (As it concerns the possibility for oppositional vote-rigging, Bozoyan says the leverages for cheating are always in the hands of the ruling regime.)

The sense of fait accompli is so greatly felt by the National Democratic Union, that its leader and former Minister of Defense and former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukyan, who has also been a member of every parliament, has decided to not run any candidates.

Manukyan says the decision is conditioned by the failure of the opposition to unite. Unification, he says, is necessary to achieve radical changes. The statement issued by the party said fighting against a “regular army” (the authorities) with “guerilla troops” (the opposition parties) is inefficient: “There are two axioms for the Armenian authorities: First, ‘we are not so weak to lose power because of papers thrown in boxes’, and second, ‘to maintain the power by means of elections in a way not to instigate protests neither inside nor outside the country.’ To achieve this they disappoint part of the people, they bribe another part, and falsify the votes of the rest. They try to achieve a situation when they can keep the power without falsifying elections, like was the case in the Soviet Union.”

Nevertheless the NDU considers it a citizen’s duty to fight falsifications till the end and to stand for their rights side by side with the citizens. Manukyan says his party, though without candidates of its own, will be monitoring the voting in all the constituencies.

Bozoyan says owing to the constitutional amendments of the 2005 referendum, the pyramidal structure of government will become more democratic at the top and the role of the parliament will grow, while that of the president will decrease. However, the changes are partial, he says, because the decentralization of the power does not spread to the regions. But the partial reforms will not affect the elections either, because part of them will be set into effect after the parliamentary elections. Another part of them will enter into force in 2008. Consequently the possibility for change as a result of this election is minimal, whether the process is free or not.

“Holding elections corresponding to international standards proceeds from Armenia’s vital necessity, since if it is not done, it may lead to a difficult situation, including in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.”

Head of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) faction in parliament Hrair Karapetyan

If the regime is kept by means of free and fair elections and the West recognizes the results, to what extent will it facilitate the settlement of the Karabakh problem?

Situations change, emphasizing free election today could distract attention from the threat of Azerbaijan’s rapid growth. The military budget of Azerbaijan is equal to the budget of Armenia, the country’s budget exceeds that of Armenia by 4.5 times, and is expected to get $5-7 billion income from oil, and the country tends to become an important energy partner for the West. A different country could afford itself to accommodate an anti-democratic regime, but for Armenia democracy is not simply a good way to improve life. It is the only way to divert the threat of war and to balance the oil dollars by means of the productivity of the free economic development. Otherwise, in case the regime is maintained, even the concession of territories will not suffice to ease Azerbaijan’s rapidly growing appetite.

Manukyan says time works in favor of Azerbaijan and the lack of regime change will seriously affect Karabakh: “Azerbaijan’s resource is oil and friendly countries. We are alone in the world and the only resource for change could be democracy, because we could develop without oil much more than Azerbaijan, if we had democracy,” he says.

Bozoyan suggests radical Constitutional amendments to eradicate the pyramidal structure of the power and create a de-centralized democratic structure instead to give the regions perspectives for development. He brings Israel as an example of a country that managed to create a real state and compete with the Arab world with its 200-million population.

Bozoyan says everybody would naturally like to have this election held in a normal way, but nevertheless concludes the “real” democratic state is incomparably more preferable than the over-centralized state with no electoral system or ideal elections.

And as Minister Oskanian says: “Democracy is more than elections.”