Armenian Parliament Elections 2017: Can the Ruling Republican Party Maintain its Grip on Power?

This country on the eastern fringes of Europe goes to the polls in crucial parliamentary elections this month

Maria Titizian, an Armenian journalist, sets the scene for the elections.

In its first elections since becoming a parliamentary republic in a controversial constitutional referendum in 2015, Armenia faces one of the key moments in its post-Soviet history.

The Republican Party, which is led by current President Serzh Sargsyan, have dominated elections in the country for the past 10 years. Unrest has been growing recently, though, with armed men seizing Erebuni police station in Yerevan, killing one policeman and taking nine hostages. Thousands took to the streets to support the hostage-takers, with the state accused of putting down these protests with stun grenades, beatings and mass detentions.

A re-intensification of clashes in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in December 2016 has only added to the volatile political atmosphere. The war with Azerbaijan is Europe’s longest running conflict. Armenian journalist Maria Titizian from EVN Report described the country as existing in a constant state of “no war and no peace”. The conflict can also be used by the government as an excuse to quell any social unrest, she says. “They can always warn: ‘We have enemies at the gate’, and that the nation must pull together behind the war effort.”

A rally for the Ohanyan-Raffi-Oskanyan opposition electoral bloc in Yerevan’s Freedom Square on March 28.

The largest opposition party in the last parliament, Prosperous Armenia, has formed an opposition bloc with the Alliance and Mission parties, which poses the main threat to continued Republican rule. Titizian predicts that this Tsarukyan alliance will be able to prevent the Republicans from winning an overall majority. In a sign of the consensus that exists between many of the major parties in Armenia, however, she says that the most likely outcome of the election is a coalition between the two entities.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan at a European People’s Party (EPP) summit in Maastricht in October 2016. Image Credit: EPP (Flickr), used under Creative Commons

Like so many countries in Eastern Europe, Armenia is caught in a tug of war between Russia and the EU. In 2015, its president Serzh Sargsyan decided against signing a EU Association Agreement in favour of joining the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union.

On March 3 this year, however, Armenia did conclude talks on a trade deal with the EU, which is now subject to being finalised in May.

Despite the decision to become a parliamentary republic in 2015 making the executive more accountable and transparent in theory, critics have accused Sargsyan of using it as a way to remain in charge by running for Prime Minister (the most powerful job under the new constitution) when his second and final presidential term ends in 2018. The leader of the opposition Heritage Party, Raffi Hovannisian, described the move as an attempt to establish a single political party-state and “enslave the people of Armenia”.

Reliable diplomatic sources in Yerevan were reluctant to accuse the President of using the system in this way, but did express concerns over the way the referendum process was handled.

Armenia’s elections have been plagued by accusations of fraud and vote buying, particularly in rural areas, where this can be much harder to track. Much has been made of the over 28,000 observers at the elections. However, amendments made to the Electoral Code at the end of last year were seen as an obstacle to the reporting of electoral fraud, with jail terms threatened for false claims of election fraud, as Giorgi Gogia from Human Rights Watch highlighted.

Human Rights Watch’s Giorgi Gogia reacts to the Electoral Code changes made in 2016. Credit: Giorgi Gogia/Twitter

A proposed thaw in relations with Turkey put on hold in 2010, but the wounds of the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War still lurk beneath the surface. The German Parliament recognised the killings as genocide last year, a landmark moment given the supposed German complicity at the time. A revival of Turkish nationalism under President Erdoğan doesn’t bode well for future relations with Armenia or any potential reopening of the border between the two countries.

Mount Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia. Despite being at the centre of historical Armenian territory, it is now tantalisingly out of reach on the other side of the closed Turkish border.

With their principal ally Russia now selling a large amount of arms to their bitter enemy Azerbaijan, Armenia finds itself in a tricky position in an unstable region. It remains to be seen whether this month’s elections will bring increased stability or further uncertainty.

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