Armenia

Roundtable summary: 'Electoral reform - the present state and future steps'

The European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE) hosted its second closed expert roundtable to discuss how the electoral reform process has gone so far, what the present state of electoral reform is, and what the future reform steps following the 20 June election might be.

The recently adopted package of electoral reforms went through a long consultation process, which was widely praised for its inclusivity and has been welcomed by the Venice Commission.[1] The consensus with which the package has been adopted was also praised as a “small miracle” by international commentators in light of the difficult backdrop of the renewed outbreak of war in 2020, as well as the COVID19 pandemic. There was a public mandate for reform according to a recent International Republican Institute (IRI) opinion poll, 3 out of 4 citizens were in support of reforming the electoral code.

The reform package is being adopted in three stages, with some changes coming into effect in time for these elections, and others to follow afterwards:

  1. Removal of highly controversial district seats, or nicknamed ratingayin in public discourse, changing to fully closed party lists. This will be in effect for the 20 June early parliamentary elections.
  2. Introduction of tightened criminal and administrative sanctions for electoral violations. This will also apply in the coming elections, though some of these sanctions were removed from the final draft.
  3. A further more comprehensive package of reforms will come into effect on 1 January, 2022, after the major autumn 2021 municipal elections.

It is also important to note that this recent reform package was preceded by two other significant reforms, municipal election reform and amendments to the Law on Political Parties.

There was some disagreement in the adopted reform package, with one of the opposition parties particularly criticizing the elimination of the open lists. It criticizes this for two main reasons: firstly, that this process was rushed ahead of the upcoming elections, and secondly, that closed lists prevent voters from directly electing their representative, making this a less democratic system, concentrating power in the political party leadership. Several experts disagreed with this proposal of having nationwide (as opposed to regional) open lists, stating that it focused attention on economic and personal loyalties/dependence rather than on a political programme, turning the electoral race into a “popularity contest” and leaving room for nepotism. Experts also warn that such a system lends itself to vote buying schemes and other methods of voter manipulation, which were observed under the old district seat system. 

Regarding the future steps of the reform package, civil society sees a need for further amendments to some key provisions and hopes that the consultation process will be similarly inclusive with civil society involvement after the elections. The provisions which civil society would like to improve relate to dispute resolution, alternative voting methods for disabled voters, the formation of election commissions, rights of citizen observers, and increasing accountability of political parties, especially concerning party and campaign financing. Given the fact that it is  now easier to form a new political party thanks to recent amendments to the Law on Political Parties, observers state that awareness raising will be needed to inform new parties about their responsibilities and attached accountability requirements. 

As main vulnerabilities to the upcoming snap elections, experts identified the lack of accessibility to elections[2] for vulnerable groups in society and the judicial system. Observers are concerned about how courts will react to reported violations or other electoral complaints and have already observed several instances of abuse of state resources, particularly on the local level.

Given the ongoing political crisis and post-war division in the country, there are concerns over certain groups not accepting the result of the elections. Such rhetoric has already started from certain political camps, but calls for violence have been limited so far. Election experts state that a serious challenge to the result depends on what the final election result will be, but that potential for this does exist in the case that one party wins the majority of parliamentary seats, but fails to win the majority of the vote. This scenario may occur due to the 5% threshold for political parties to enter parliament, which could lead to overrepresentation of the largest parties.[3]

[1] A recent EPDE analysis of the Draft Joint Urgent Opinion by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe and OSCE/ODIHR can be found here: https://www.epde.org/en/news/details/european-institutions-broadly-welcome-armenias-proposed-electoral-reform.html

[2] EPDE’s first expert roundtable dealt with the question of accessibility to elections, a summary of this discussion can be found here: https://www.epde.org/en/news/details/roundtable-summary-accessibility-of-elections-under-pandemic-conditions.html

[3] For other possible scenarios for the election, please see following report: https://www.evnreport.com/opinion/election-finally-officially-triggered-here-are-the-possible-outcomes

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