Karabakh Poll Exposes Lack of Opposition
Elections in Nagorny Karabakh ended without a single opponent of the government in parliament, leaving analysts to predict deputies will be sidelined in the political process.
The communist party, which called itself opposition-minded although its leader Hrant Melkumyan had been an adviser to the prime minister until the start of the campaign, won just 4.8 per cent of the vote in the May 23 poll - below the six per cent threshold needed to enter parliament.
"There will be no opposition or dissident deputies, since not one of the political forces represented in parliament has ever held an opposition position, either inside or outside parliament," Melkumyan said.
Nagorny Karabakh's status is unresolved. Its self-declared independence is not recognised internationally, and Baku claims it as part of its territory. Locals opposed to President Bako Sahakyan's government have struggled to form an organised opposition movement, perhaps because they do not wish to appear disloyal to the entity.
Sahakyan himself said he did not regret the lack of an opposition in parliament. "In recent years, we have not tried to create an artificial opposition. If we were to take such steps, that would be the crudest violation of democratic principles," he said.
The election was won by Free Homeland (Azat hayrenik in Armenian), which supports Sahakyan and is headed by Prime Minister Ara Harutyunyan, with 46.4 per cent of the votes. Two other pro-presidential parties - the Artsakh Democratic Party and Dashnaktsutyun - won 28.6 and 20.2 per cent respectively.
Another 16 candidates, nine of whom were already deputies, won in single-member constituencies.
Not only were the parties' policies similar, but also their campaign styles had a lot in common. Their slogans - "Choose the son of the people", "Only he who was raised by the people can understand the people's pain", "Trust the People's Candidate" - were largely interchangeable.
For the first time, candidates made use of large advertising hoardings to spread their message, and posters spread across buildings, buses, doors, hairdressers' and elsewhere. The candidates' photographs all looked strangely similar, since they were all taken by Areg Balayan - one of Karabakh's few professional photographers.
Balayan, perhaps influenced by his high-level contacts, said he had voted for the first time this year. "Before I was very indifferent, but this year I kind of had a feeling and understood how important it is to vote and how important it is to have elections in our country," he said.
Political analysts did not share his opinion, however.
"Parliament will not play an important political role, since there have been almost no changes in the list of deputies. The decisive figure in the country will remain the president, therefore I do not expect decisive actions from this parliament," Davit Karabekyan, a professor at the Artsakh State University, said.
But the elections still angered Azerbaijan, which lost control of Nagorny Karabakh in a war that started with the collapse of the Soviet Union and ended with a ceasefire in 1994.
Mazahir Panahov, head of Azerbaijan's Central Electoral Commission, said that the elections were illegal under Azerbaijan's law, while Turkey - Azerbaijan's key ally - also reacted negatively.
"These 'elections', which we consider to be part of a unilateral effort to legitimise the de facto unlawful situation in Nagorno Karabakh, constitute a clear breach of international law," a Turkish foreign ministry statement said.
"Turkey, while deploring this act which violates Azerbaijan's political unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity, will not recognise the results of these illegal elections which are certainly null and void in terms of international law."
Although other powers were less negative, the elections were not welcomed in the international community. All the same, some 66,771 voters went to the polls - a turn-out of 67.8 per cent - and treated the day as a public holiday. Women and men went to the elections in their best clothes.
Polling stations attended by the president or other top officials organised small concerts of Armenian folk music, while other sites had loudspeakers.
Svetlana Mirzoyan, a 63-year-old coming out of a Stepanakert polling station, said she hoped the elections would improve her life.
"I believe that the new parliament will think of the people, will pay attention to rising prices and make them cheaper. I do not know why, but I believe that something will change for the better," she said.
But not everyone shared her high opinion of the process. Mikael Grigoryan, 28, was one of many who did not bother voting.
"Who could I vote for? There was no choice. In the years that these parties have been active nothing has changed for the better," he said.
His opinion is not widely expressed, however, and has very few high-profile supporters. One of the only significant public figures to speak out against the poll was Karen Ohanjanyan, head of Helsinki Initiative-92, a human rights group.
"Since the government used its administrative resources, so a party headed by the prime minister would win at the election, the people should demand from the president that the parliament and the head of the electoral commission resign, since they falsified the results of the election," she said.
Lusine Musayelyan is a correspondent for Radio Liberty.