Roundtable summary: 'Threats to Election Day - evaluation of election preparations and security concerns'
The European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE) hosted its fourth closed expert roundtable discussing issues that might pose a threat to the upcoming snap parliamentary elections. Immediate concerns include the post-war security situation, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the short term for organizing the elections. Despite these threats, Armenia is currently facing an important milestone in its democratic development. It is turning to elections rather than violence and protest as a means to overcome its political crisis, and elections have become more than an administrative performance, as demonstrated by this fiercely fought election campaign with an, as of yet, unpredictable outcome.
Experts note that these elections face five key challenges:
Security and sovereignty
The situation at Armenia’s border has stabilized somewhat in recent weeks, however, any future incursions could still become a major risk to these elections. The rhetoric around security issues has also influenced the campaign and societal issues being debated in Armenia, including growing anti-Russian sentiment. Regional security and Armenia’s security guarantees under the existing military alliance is also increasingly scrutinized.
Experts note that the issue of security is being discussed in the frame of border security and loss of territory in these elections, but not as a human security issue concerning prisoners of war (POWs), loss of life, or any other human dimension.
Democracy versus security
This phrase has been used by several experts throughout the EPDE roundtable series, including during this discussion. Although parties agreed to participate in this democratic process of snap parliamentary elections, experts observe that some political forces are now using this campaign to work against the institution of democratic elections. Security issues are being used as an argument against furthering democratic reforms and are even being blamed for Armenia’s current political crisis and security situation. However, experts state that, for the vast majority of Armenians there is no trade-off between freedoms and security, the gains acquired during the Velvet revolution are non-negotiable and security issues won’t be resolved by giving up freedoms.
Although infection rates are dropping drastically, experts criticize that there was a failure to introduce provisions to mitigate infections during elections. A respective regulation was removed from the electoral reform agenda. Experts are also concerned that mass gatherings and election rallies could cause a spike in infections. The Central Election Commission (CEC) has issued recommendations and is providing trainings in cooperation with IFES on safely conducting these elections, but these are only recommendations and not binding legal regulations. The pace of vaccinations is also incredibly slow in Armenia, and a poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI) indicates that 71% of respondents are either unwilling to be vaccinated, are concerned about side effects, or do not believe in being vaccinated.
Experts also note that the pandemic issue has been completely ignored by political leaders and has been missing from political debate during the elections.
Election delivery and election management bodies (EMBs)
Experts are confident that EMBs are capable of delivering a technically sound election, but that they could be more involved in facilitating political dialogue going beyond basic voter education materials. An example would be to bring political parties together to sign a Code of Conduct for the election campaign or provide further civic education. Experts also state that this election will be a litmus test for institutions on how they handle electoral complaints and possible post-election disorder. As elections become increasingly complex, so will complaints and other issues that may emerge.
Political fragmentation and polarization
Out of the 25 contending parties and alliances, it is unlikely that many will overcome the vote threshold to enter parliament (set at 5% for parties, 7% for alliances). This means that there is a high number of “wasted votes”. In 2018, for example, out of the 11 contending parties, only 3 made it into parliament. Experts state that this electoral system and threshold has contributed to the political fragmentation in Armenia. As of now, there are very few pre-campaign agreements among parties to come together, and tactical voting is not yet a common occurrence. The new system in effect for this election, in which district seats have been abolished, may also lead to the situation that those few parties who do overcome the threshold will gain a higher proportion of seats in parliament than was won in votes. This eventuality may lead to some parties calling the result of the vote into question, claiming that seats were disproportionally distributed and that parliament no longer reflects the will of the people. There are already indications of parties preparing to challenge results and even call for protests, as certain political forces have preemptively ‘reserved’ locations for post-election protests.
Another important aspect that would help curb political polarization, which may not be directly related to elections, is the need to decentralize power. Currently in Armenia, there is a unicameral parliament with no representatives of the regions in the second chamber. The local government is still dependent on central power. To truly reflect a plurality of expression in the political system, other levels of power in which citizens are represented should be introduced. This would be a long-term reform recommendation, note experts.
Dispute resolution and justice system
The justice system poses a systemic risk to the elections, warn experts. If the election results were to be challenged, it is not clear whether the constitutional court would judge on this in an unbiased manner and respect the democratic process. Corruption in the justice system is still widespread, and cases of unjust decisions concerning the elections by lower-level courts, such as administrative courts, have already been observed. Experts expect further surprising decisions by administrative courts and are concerned that this will affect the quality of the elections, which could then also be used to challenge the overall outcome of the elections in the constitutional court.
IRI polls indicate that 55% of voters who declare that they want to vote are still unsure about how to vote, which is tied to general feelings of insecurity and uncertainty on where the country currently stands. A strong majority of 72% say that they will cast a ballot.
However, if the voter turnout is lower than in 2018 during the Velvet revolution, experts are concerned that this may lead to some political forces using this as a reason to claim that the elections were not representative, aiming to delegitimize the vote.
Regarding the issue of corruption affecting the system, experts also note that this issue may influence voters’ choice in this election. The two general political camps which voters can choose from can be summarized as being either for a corrupt system, from which the voter may benefit, or to be in support of the current government and their attempts of curbing corruption.
 For more information, see the report of the first EPDE Expert Round Table on this issue: https://www.epde.org/en/news/details/roundtable-summary-accessibility-of-elections-under-pandemic-conditions.html