What you need to know about Armenia's electoral reforms in the run-up to early parliamentary elections
A revolution took place in Armenia earlier this year which led to a change in power. This was the first such instance in the history of independent Armenia. The prolonged mass protests were headed by opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan, who was elected by the parliament as prime minister on 8 May.
JAMnews presents a series of articles dedicated to the first steps taken by the new Armenian government.
In this article: reforms concerning the electoral system.
evolutionary processes that have been taking place in Armenia since April 2018 will only be considered completed after early parliamentary elections have been held.
In 2017 the country shifted from a semi-presidential system of government to a fully parliamentary one, resulting in parliament being the main governing body of the country. Now, after the ‘velvet revolution’, a formerly small opposition party is at the helm of the government.
[su_pullquote align=”right”]The elections must take place according to a thoroughly amended electoral code in order to ensure fair and transparent elections.[/su_pullquote]
For this reason, the new government announced that one of its priorities would be to hold parliamentary elections no later than a year after receiving approval for its programme.
On 7 June 2018 Armenian MPs voted for the government’s programme, with 62 for and 39 against. A week later, PM Nikol Pashinyan created a commission that would be responsible for reforming the electoral legislation.
The commission has made the following suggestions as of now:
- To do away with the score rating system and to replace it with a one-hundred per cent proportional system that would be ‘understood by all and simple’, as Pashinyan described it;
- Lower the entrance threshold from five to four per cent, and from seven to six per cent for party blocs;
- To stop using fountain pens in voting booths and instead use sensor devices which would, at the touch of a finger, display party name and candidate, and automatically print and file the voting sheet;
- To dye the fingers of voters with invisible ink in order to prevent double voting.
Here’s all that and more in detail:
Armenia’s electoral codex was last changed in 2016 as part of the referendum which approved the country’s transfer to a parliamentary system of governance.
The reform was worked on in a ‘4+4+4’ format – which entailed four representatives from the authorities, four from the opposition and another four from civil society. The opposition put forward its demands, but the authorities only approved of changes deemed appropriate and reasonable.
European experts greeted the changes as a whole but voiced other concerns as well.
The first issue was the publication of voter lists. The Venice Commission stated that it violated the right to confidentiality and personal information and called on the authorities to re-examine the law.
However, the opposition demanded that the lists remain public, and for the sake of political consensus, the then-authorities did not agree with the Venice Commission. The voting lists remained public after voting.
Parliamentary elections took place on 2 April 2017 on the basis of this reformed codex.
Important innovations included: scanning of fingerprints, videofilming of all electoral processes and their online broadcast.
More discussions of reforms
On 20 June 2018, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signed a bill to create a commission to reform the electoral legislation.
There are 12 people on the commission. The chairman is First Vice Prime Minister Ararat Mirzoyan, and the secretary is Daniel Ionnisyan, coordinator of the public organisation ‘Union of Informed Citizens’.
The chairman of the commission has the responsibility of organising discussions with the participation of parliamentary and non-parliamentary political forces.
A similar working group was formed on the same day in parliament, and three MPs from all factions were assigned to the group.
Main points of contention
One of the main suggestions of the commission has been to hold elections on a 100 – per cent proportional system, which means that a voter simply has to choose which political group they want and to vote for it.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and the former ruling Republican Party have come out against this idea. They believe that in this case people do not get to choose specific candidates for parliament, because the leadership of the party will decide who is to become MP.
The ARF believes that an open, proportional list should be created on which the voter can offer a sequence of preferred candidates, with the name at the top being the person they want to see enter parliament above all others.
The government commission believes that this form of voting makes the process too difficult and tedious.
“Can you imagine what this voting ticket would look like? It would be a mess,” says the secretary of the commission, Daniel Ionnisyan.
The position of the Yelk and Tsarukyan factions coincides with that of the government. They are concerned only by the fact that candidates from urban areas may lose the chance to make it into parliament.
The former ruling Republican Party believes that the changes are not needed and that things should be left as they are.
What does the current voting system in Armenia look like?
The current electoral codex divides Armenia into 13 election districts, of which four are in Yerevan and nine in urban areas.
The number of MPs in parliament must be no less than 101, and four may be representatives of national minorities.
Every party participating in the elections must put forward two lists for every district – a proportional list and ranking list. This means that the voter chooses not only a specific political party, but also votes for specific individuals that are put forward in the party’s list in a given territorial district.
Thus, half the MPs enter parliament according to the proportional system and half by the ranking system.
The Republican Party insists that it is because of this system that representatives from urban areas are able to become MPs and lobby for the resolution of the problems of their regions. Should a regular proportional system be passed, then those regions may lose their voice in parliament.
The government commission is against this suggestion. Daniel Ioannisyan brought up the current parliamentary composition as example: because of the ranking system, almost exclusively rich, well-known individuals and ‘local authorities’ made it into parliament.
“As a rule, according to the majoritarian system, people were elected who had nothing to do with politics. People voted for their ‘neighborhood officials’, superiors and people who gave them bribes or put pressure on them.”
A compromise has yet to be found on this issue.
The government commission proposes to facilitate entry into parliament by lowering the entry threshold for parties from five to four, and for blocs from seven to six per cent. Most politicians have supported this proposal, but there are some who oppose this idea.
“If you want the parties to fall apart, lower the threshold as much as you like. You can equate party entrance into parliament with the ability to walk into a bar,” said Dashnak MP Spartak Seyranyan.
A number of technical innovations have been put forward, given that the level of distrust towards elections in the country is high.
The Republican Party has suggested registering voters with the help of a device that will identify ID cards, which must issued en masse to all.
Another suggestion has been to install touch devices that will deposit a voter’s selections directly into a secure box after they select the name of their desired party and candidate.
There have also been calls to broadcast the voting process, but there aren’t enough cameras available: the 1 200 used in the last elections were given to various state institutions.
All of these proposals have been adopted despite the cost
The European Union has promised to help purchase the necessary equipment for Armenia, as it has done for previous elections. The head of the delegation of the European Union to Turkey, Ambassador Piotr Switalski, said on 16 July at a press conference:
“We are fully determined to fulfil the promises made by representatives of the European Union.”
Election violations and bribery
In order to avoid violations during elections, the Tsarukyan party has put forward the idea of dying voters’ fingers.
The ARF have offered to create a special police department and to also suspend the activities of charitable organisations before the elections and prevent the names of charitable organisations and parties or blocs from overlapping.
The state has offered to help solve the problem of voting for people who are unable to do so independently.
However, Daniel Ioannisyan has voiced concern regarding the matter:
“During the last parliamentary elections, 70 500 people needed help, and a majority of them ended up being influenced.”
This is why a suggestion was made to require a bill of health from the doctors of those who cannot vote independently.
There has been no definitive decision on these suggestions.
The votes of servicemen
Many believe that the army is a serious source of support for the authorities.
A suggestion is being discussed that would forbid commanding officers from being on the premises of polling stations or from being closer than 100 metres to voting booths.
The current election codex states that a coalition can consist of no more than three parties or factions.
The state commission has proposed to do away with this limitation. The Republican Party has come out against this, with its representative, David Harutyunyan, saying:
“Imagine that a party receives just a few votes less than it needs to be in the majority, while the other votes were distributed among smaller parties that do not have a big base or influence in society. As a result, if the [small parties] unite against the big party, then you’d have a majority – but if just one of them leaves, then the entire system would crumble.”
The proposal to do away with the limitation has been declined.
However, a proposal made by the ARF on not allowing any one party to have more than 60 per cent of the vote has been accepted. This would entail the right to single-handedly change the constitution.
Involvement of women
According to the current law, every fourth person on the proportional list must be a woman. Women currently make up 18 per cent of the composition of parliament.
Public organisations that are involved in women’s rights issues have offered to put in a 50/50 clause, given that women also actively participated in the revolution.
The Council of Europe has called for women to make up 40 per cent of parliament.
Participants in the discussions have said that women make up on average 32 per cent of parliament in democratic countries around the world.
The Yelk bloc has proposed making televised debates a normal phenomenon and to increase the amount of free screen time.
The Republican Party has come out against mandatory debates, claiming that often parties show up who have few representatives and whose candidate aren’t particularly impressive to face off against more serious parties.
After serious discussions, the following decision was reached: if two parties agree to hold a debate, public television must provide them with a live broadcast.
One or two bills?
Because two groups have been formed to look into the issue, it is not yet known how many bills will be put forward – one or two?
Daniel Ioannisyan has stated that a bill may be put forward even without complete consensus, while Ararat Mirzoyan says that it is important to come to a conclusion that all can agree to, as is called for by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. At any rate, the final bill will be ready in September.
Dates and format of participation in elections
Pashinyan stated the approximate date for early elections at a press conference on 20 July:
“The deadline for elections will be May next year.”
So far only the ARF has announced the format of its participation in the elections, saying they will proceed independently and will not enter any bloc.