Roundtable summary: 'Political party landscape and campaign messaging'
The European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE) hosted its third closed expert roundtable, during which leading Armenian political commentators and experts analyzed the main political actors in the current election campaign, their campaign messaging, and what their chances are in the upcoming elections. The election results are not easily predictable, while the election campaign is being conducted in a truly competitive and very tense environment. Experts conclude that the election is being framed as a choice between continuing democratic reforms or prioritizing national security. Both main candidates have used harsh rhetoric that has served to further polarize society. Opinion polls suggest that many people are still undecided; for the first time in recent memory, there could be some big surprises on election night.
Who are the main actors and what are their chances?
On 26 May, registration for parties who intend to run in the snap elections was closed. 22 parties and 4 party alliances were registered to run. So far, one party has already announced that it will drop out of the race.
The main contenders are 1) PM Nikol Pashinyan and his Civil Contract Party, which held the majority of seats in the National Assembly after the last parliamentary election in 2018 as part of the My Step Alliance, and 2) the Armenia Alliance led by Robert Kocharyan, who served as Armenia’s second president from 1998 to 2008. Kocharyan’s alliance is made up of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), which has a strong following in the Armenian diaspora, and Reborn Armenia. In general, experts summarize Kocharyan’s alliance as being “counter-revolutionary” and representing a return to the old regime from before the Velvet Revolution of 2018. Kocharyan will likely be familiar to international observers of Armenian elections as he was associated with the crackdowns on civilians during the 2008 post-election protests, which resulted in 10 casualties.
Contenders with chances of gaining seats also include the following parties and alliance:
- Prosperous Armenia, led by a business tycoon and believed to have been established by Kocharyan to act as a counterbalance to the Republican Party in the early 2000s. This party could become kingmaker if it crosses the 5% threshold to enter parliament, choosing who to enter into a ruling coalition with.
- Bright Armenia, the second opposition party in the current National Assembly, which has been trailing in recent opinion polls. They are a former alliance partner with Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party but relations have soured over the past year.
- Armenian National Congress, formed and led by Armenia’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who is back at the top of the party ticket.
- I Have Honor Alliance, formed in 2021 between the Republican Party of Armenia, led by former President Serzh Sargsyan (who is not a candidate himself), and the Homeland Party of Artur Vanetsyan, Pashinyan’s former head of the National Security Service. The Republican Party of Armenia held a parliamentary majority before the Velvet Revolution in 2018 and was criticized for institutional corruption.
Out of the 26 registered parties and alliances, 11 were newly formed following the 2020 Artsakh War. Commentators predict that the other alliances (Shirinyan-Babajanyan Democrats’ Alliance and Free Homeland Alliance) do not have a realistic chance to overcome the higher 7% threshold for alliances to enter parliament. Political parties contesting alone have a lower 5% threshold, which will still be a significant impediment to the wide field of new parties that have yet to establish themselves organizationally.
The differences between the newly-formed parties are not always immediately clear, since many share similar ideologies. However, broadly speaking, one can place them into general political camps: those that support the revolution and are pro-democratic, and those that are critical of the revolution and tend to be more nationalist and security-focused. Experts summarize the choice voters face as being between continued democratic reform or a return to authoritarianism, which is likely to be even harsher than before the revolution now that political forces have learned that soft-authoritarianism does not work in the long-run.
Campaign environment and messaging
“Everything about this election campaign has to do with the war and the post-war period.” This statement summarizes the setting of this campaign and the way in which political parties and alliances position themselves rather succinctly. Security issues dominate discourse, while the issues of democratic development, reforms, and policies are still desired but acknowledged to come at a cost. Smaller parties have not even released their party platforms yet. When analyzing some of the larger parties’ policies, commentators find that these lack real substance and are filled with general statements or platitudes rather than concrete policy proposals.
Since voters are similarly preoccupied with security questions, experts predict that voters are unlikely to be swayed by specific policies or political programmes. The COVID-19 pandemic became an additional security issue for voters, as it highlighted serious weaknesses in the healthcare system.
The perceived indifference from Western countries to Armenia’s security plight has also defined the campaign. Lacking support and political engagement has left Armenians feeling abandoned in the region, open to exploitation by authoritarian neighbours, such as Russia which has used the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan to advance its own interests in the region. The ongoing conflict is harmful to Armenia’s democratic development in two ways: firstly, Armenia becomes preoccupied with serious security issues, which causes reforms to stagnate. Secondly, anti-reform parties use the war in their nationalist political rhetoric to gather popular support, calling to end Armenia’s experiments with democratic reforms. Experts commented on a particularly worrying, emerging narrative of “security over democracy”. However, it is not only the parties who oppose reforms that are calling for tougher methods. Pashinyan has promised to “end the velvet” and use harsher methods to crack down on associates of the previous regime, including purges from the civil service.
Concerning the role of media in promoting campaign messages, experts state the smaller and newer parties have less chance of becoming known by the public via traditional media. A new law has tried to level the playing field by requiring state media to provide equal access to all contenders during the official 12-day campaign period, but whether there will actually be balanced coverage is yet to be seen.
What role could the Armenian diaspora play in these elections?
Experts are very reluctant to make any predictions concerning the electoral preferences of the Armenian diaspora, as this is a very diverse group. The ARF may be very vocal and present in the community, but it is unclear whether their sometimes extreme political rhetoric is resonating with this group in these elections. The war is also likely to play an important role for this group. The diaspora has generally been hugely disappointed in the government’s handling of the war. Experts criticize that there was a missed opportunity to engage the diaspora more in the democratic development of Armenia, and that the diaspora’s resources and experience should be better utilized by democratic forces in the country. Notably, only those diasporans who hold Armenian citizenship and are physically present in the country on election day are able to vote.
 CivilNet published detailed profiles on several contending parties: https://www.civilnet.am/news/619891/pashinyans-civil-contract-party-armvote21/?lang=en; https://www.civilnet.am/news/609478/armenia-alliance-elections-2021/?lang=en; https://www.civilnet.am/news/609701/armenian-national-congress-armvote21/?lang=en; https://www.civilnet.am/news/610349/serzh-sargsyan-leads-the-i-have-honor-alliance-armvote21/?lang=en.