Armenia - Politics
Armenia is a constitutional republic with a population of approximately 3.2 million. The constitution provides for an elected president and a unicameral legislature (the National Assembly). The country has a multiparty political system. The Government of Armenia's stated aim is to build a Western-style parliamentary democracy as the basis of its form of government. The unicameral National Assembly has 90 seats which are elected by proportional representation (party list), and 41 are single mandate districts. However, international observers have been critical of the conduct of national elections in 1995, 1999, and 2003, as well as the constitutional referendum of 2005. The new constitution in 2005 increased the power of the legislative branch and allows for more independence of the judiciary; in practice, however, both branches remain subject to political pressure from the executive branch, which retains considerably greater power than its counterparts in most European countries.
Many challenges face the development of a pluralistic, democratic, and competitive political system. Although Armenia has been independent for almost fifteen years, autocratic mentalities and practices remain embedded. The government is dominated by the executive branch and is without meaningful checks and balances. The judiciary is not independent, and rulings are politically biased. A symbiotic relationship between political and business elites has bred endemic corruption and severely hampers the ability of opposition parties to raise funds or access the electronic media.
Armenians voted overwhelmingly for independence in a September 1991 referendum, followed by a presidential election in October 1991 that gave 83% of the vote to Levon Ter-Petrossian. Ter-Petrossian had been elected head of government in 1990, when the Armenian National Movement defeated the Communist Party. Ter-Petrossian was re-elected in 1996 in a disputed election.
Following public demonstrations against Ter-Petrossian's policies on the predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh that is located within Azerbaijan, the President resigned under pressure in January 1998 and was replaced by Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, who was subsequently elected President in March 1998. Following the October 27, 1999 assassination in Parliament of Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian, Parliament Speaker Karen Demirchian, and six other officials, a period of political instability ensued during which an opposition headed by elements of the former Armenian National Movement government attempted unsuccessfully to force Kocharian to resign. Riding out the unrest, Kocharian was later reelected in March 2003 in a contentious election that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the U.S. Government deemed to have fallen short of international standards.
As a result of the May 2007 parliamentary elections, and with the February 2008 decision by the Country of Law Party to join the governing coalition, 113 seats out of the 131 in the National Assembly were held by pro-government parties. The sole opposition faction in parliament, the Heritage Party, holds seven seats. The remaining members of parliament were independent, although most of these were aligned de facto with the pro-government parties.
Armenia held presidential elections on February 19, 2008 in which the term-limited incumbent could not run. The elections, while originally deemed by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to be "mostly in line" with OSCE standards, were later seen to be marred by credible claims of ballot stuffing, intimidation (and even beatings) of poll workers and proxies, vote buying, and other irregularities. Recounts were requested, but ODIHR observers noted "shortcomings in the recount process, including discrepancies and mistakes, some of which raise questions over the impartiality of the [electoral commissions] concerned."
Mass protests followed the disputed vote. For 10 days, large crowds of pro-opposition demonstrators gathered in Yerevan's downtown Freedom Square. Police and security forces entered Freedom Square early in the morning on March 1, 2008, ostensibly to investigate reports of hidden weapons caches. This operation turned into a forced dispersal of demonstrators from Freedom Square by massed riot police. Following the clearing of Freedom Square, clashes erupted in the afternoon between massed demonstrators and security personnel, and continued throughout the day and evening, leading to ten deaths and hundreds of injuries. President Kocharian decreed a 20-day state of emergency in Yerevan late on March 1, which sharply curtailed freedom of media and assembly. Dozens of opposition supporters were jailed in the wake of the violence, in proceedings that many international watchdog groups have criticized as politically motivated. Armenia's media freedom climate and freedom of assembly remained poor overall, though somewhat improved after the state of emergency was lifted.
In April 2008 Serzh Sargsian of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) was sworn in as president, replacing Robert Kocharian. In the National Assembly, the RPA continued to dominate the ruling coalition, which decreased from four parties to three on 27 April 2009, when the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun) resigned from the coalition citing differences over the conduct of foreign policy. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces, although some members of the security forces continued to commit human rights abuses with impunity while under the direction of civilian leadership.
The National Assembly launched a parliamentary ad hoc commission tasked with an inquiry into the events of March 1-2, 2008. The ad hoc commission showed early promise, despite concerns about its pro-government composition. The commission members summoned senior government officials to testify in public hearings, and subjected them to probing questions. This effort was expanded by a presidential directive on October 23, 2008 that formed an independent fact-finding group tasked to support and report to the ad hoc commission. It was composed of members appointed in equal numbers by ruling and opposition parties. These initiatives to uncover the truth about the March 1 events have been welcome, albeit imperfect, steps to provide public accountability.
On September 16-17, 2009, approximately 16 months after its establishment, the ad hoc parliamentary commission released its findings on the March 2008 postelection events and 10 resulting deaths. The report stated that the commission was unable to shed more light onto the circumstances of the deaths and urged law enforcement authorities to do more to identify, track down, and prosecute individuals responsible for the deaths. Relatives of the civilian victims protested the commission's findings and demonstrated before the parliament for a full, objective accounting of the deaths. The report blamed authorities, the opposition, and the media alike for escalating the election-related tensions that preceded the clashes. The report criticized electronic media for biased coverage in the period prior to the election, which added to the public's distrust of authorities. But the report assigned most of the blame for the violent unrest on the opposition, accusing presidential candidate and former president Levon Ter-Petrossian of poisoning the preelection period.
The significantly flawed February 2008 presidential election and violent break-up of ensuing protests that resulted in 10 deaths continued to fuel a political crisis that remained largely unresolved during 2009 and resulted in numerous human rights abuses.
In accordance with changes made to the constitution in 2005, on 31 May 2009 the country conducted its first election of the Yerevan City Council (65 members) and the first, albeit indirect, election of the mayor of Yerevan (since independence in 1991, the president of the republic had appointed the mayors of the capital). Six parties and one bloc contested the proportional representation-based election on May 31, including the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), the ruling coalition partner Prosperous Armenia (PA), the ruling coalition partner Rule of Law (OY), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnakstutiun, the ANC bloc, the People's Party, and the Socialistic Labor Party of Armenia.
The conduct of the election was significantly flawed. Problems included favorable treatment of the ruling coalition parties and candidates; unbalanced election commissions in favor of ruling parties; instances of ballot stuffing; reports of vote buying; attempts to bribe observers; busing into Yerevan of non-Yerevan residents to vote; voter intimidation; violence against and intimidation of reporters, observers, and opposition proxies; restriction of individual civil and political rights; management of the work at polling stations by unauthorized individuals or candidates' proxies; cases of open and multiple voting; and suspiciously high turnout figures in some polling stations.
On 06 June 2009, the CEC officially reported the final results of the election, with 35 seats on the new city council going to the ruling RPA, 17 to its ruling coalition partner Prosperous Armenia, and 13 going to the ANC led by former president Levon Ter-Petrossian. Two CEC members representing the opposition Heritage and Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (ARF) parties refused to sign the CEC's final election protocol. On June 8, the RPA's Gagik Beglarian was officially reinstalled as Yerevan's mayor. On June 1, the ANC said it would boycott the city council after what Ter-Petrossian called "the ugliest election in Armenia's history." The opposition Heritage party, which did not contest the election, largely shared ANC's assessment and described the election as "disgraceful." The ARF also described the election as flawed and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the official results, noting that such elections risked becoming "a mere procedure for reproducing the authorities."
Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces, although some members of the security forces continued to commit human rights abuses with impunity while under the direction of civilian leadership.Authorities restricted the right of citizens to freely change their government in mayoral elections in Yerevan. During 2009, authorities subjected citizens, particularly those considered by the government to be political opponents, to arbitrary arrest, detention, and imprisonment for their political activities; lengthy pretrial detention also continued to be a problem. Authorities continued to use harassment and intrusive application of bureaucratic measures to intimidate and retaliate against political opponents. Authorities used force to disperse political demonstrations and constrain citizens seeking to publicize them. Police beat pretrial detainees and failed to provide due process in some cases. The National Security Service (NSS) and police acted with impunity in committing alleged human rights abuses.
On 18 February 2013 Armenians voted for president, with incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan widely expected to win. His victory would give another five years to the already 13-year rule of his Republican Party in the small Caucasus nation. In a rarity for the former Soviet republics, Armenia had a genuine multi-party contest. The race, however, was rocky for the landlocked country of 3 million people. Of the eight original candidates, one dropped out, a second refused to vote, a third also refused to vote and was on a hunger strike, a fourth was shot and wounded in an apparent assassination attempt, and a fifth feared arrest after the vote because he knew the suspected shooter. Of the last three candidates, two were charging fraud even before the first ballot was cast. Indeed, Serzh Sargsyan of the Republican Party of Armenia received 861,155 votes, 56.67% of the votes cast, while Raffi K. Hovhannisyan of the Heritage Party received 539,691 votes, 35.51% of the votes cast, while the remaining votes were split among five other minor candidates.
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