Armenian Opposition Protests Electoral Changes

Claims that the new system is being implemented without proper public consultation and will weaken democracy.

Armenian Opposition Protests Electoral Changes

Claims that the new system is being implemented without proper public consultation and will weaken democracy.

Tuesday, 19 October, 2021

Armenian opposition groups continue to protest electoral changes that have seen local elections shifted to a proportional system that critics say may serve to consolidate the ruling party’s authority.

Snap parliamentary elections in June, the first under this system, saw Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and his My Step faction continue in power.  

The first round of local elections, postponed due to the pandemic and last year’s Nagorny Karabakh war, took place on October 17 with more scheduled for November 14 and December 5.

They also reflect a process of community consolidation, underway since 2016, which has seen nearly 500 settlements united into just over 50 enlarged communities.

According to this year’s legal amendments, elections in all enlarged communities will be held under the new system. The party receiving the majority of votes will form a council of elders and elect the head of the community.

“The elections in the consolidated communities will be held under a proportional system,” deputy prime minister Suren Papikyan told a government meeting. “This is a very important circumstance, which will contribute to the development of parties on the ground and the development of the party system in the republic.”

However, critics argue that this will serve to harm local democracy, forcing local figures who want to play a part in community politics to join together to form a significant party or become a part of an already existing faction. Many also protest that the legal changes were made without proper public consultation, undermining their legitimacy.

“Many parties at the local level do not have party cells. This means that now they will hastily create local structures to take part in the local elections,” said Oleg Dulgaryan, head of the Community Consolidation and Support Centre, which deals with communal issues.

He warned that since large parties had yet to be established on a local level, people would rush to create new groupings at the cost of quality and a comprehensive party policy.

Dulgaryan further argued that the system would be damaging for local democracy.

“I am sure in this format that local self-government will not be independent, it will be politicised; parties and political forces which will be engaged in the formation of local councils or self-government bodies will give priorities to their political decisions and in such cases the interests of the communities may be ignored,” he said.

Emin Yeritsyan is a member of the Council of Elders in the Parakar community and chairman of the Union of Communities in Armenia representative body. He said that it already become clear from some recent nominations that those seeking power had joined political parties out of necessity but would have no accountability to these structures.  

“On the other hand, we have observed that new parties are being registered only to solve some specific local problems; which is also very artificial and temporary, and if the party does not act at the national level, it is just a group created as a party to bypass the flaws in the law,” he said.

The current legislation allows up to 30 per cent of non-members to be included in party lists, but Dulgaryan said it would in practice be impossible to carry out any meaningful work as an independent as the representative would effectively be obliged to vote along party lines.  He said that this was why he, and many other civil society leaders, would refuse to participate in proportional elections within this format.

Other say that the opinions of the local population have not taken into account.

In May, the constitutional court ruled that the government had to clearly show that the unification of communities was in the public interest, while also providing a mechanism allowing residents’ concerns to be heard.

Yeritsyan said that the authorities had interpreted the ruling in “quite the opposite” way that had been intended, adding that “the demand to listen to the opinion of the population… through constitutional amendments was entrusted to the National Assembly”.

However, Pashinyan made clear at a government meeting on August 8 that the issue of community enlargement lay within the competence of the government.

“We had previously introduced a regulation which implied certain mechanisms for communities and allowed holding a local referendum, but this regulation was disputed in the Constitutional Court which considered it unconstitutional. Therefore, today this issue is completely a subject of political decision ... the decision has been made and it must be implemented,” he said.

Gevorg Kotanjyan is chairman of the Direct Democracy NGO, which works with local communities in the Lori region, located in the north of Armenia. He said that colleagues had visited a number of communities in the area where no public discussions on the issue had ever been held.

“The organisation sent a letter to the government of Armenia demanding to hold public hearings in the communities which are going to be consolidated; inform the locals about the process of consolidation and give clear explanation on the issues that public is concerned about,” he said.

Some communities have made their discontent clear. In mid-September, villagers from Margahovit in Lori and Geghamasar in the Gegharkunik region even blocked the Vardenis-Sotk road in protest against the consolidation.

Having unsuccessfully called on President Armen Sargsyan to consider challenging the bill, the opposition Armenia and I Have Honor parties have appealed to the constitutional court over the legality of the enlargement of the communities

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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