BY HAIG KAYSERIAN
The Yerevan City Elections in September proved beyond doubt, that support for the Nikol Pashinyan-led popular movement is more than the few hundred thousand bodies cheering rousing speeches and dancing to funky tunes in the Republic Square. There are many more from where these bodies came from, and together, they project the voice of a mobilized electorate which is clearly ready to vote for the change that they helped achieve.
This mobilization achieved a landslide 81% victory for the Pashinyan-backed Mayoral candidacy of his party colleague, Hayk Marutyan and the “My Step” Bloc in the Yerevan City Elections.
There is a strong chance of a similar wipeout brewing at the soon-to-be-announced Extraordinary National Assembly Elections. The odds in favor of this wipeout have been further shortened after Pashinyan was able to flex his ‘people muscle’ following a vote – by the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and the Tsarukyan Bloc – which was ironically designed to prevent the use of this ‘people muscle’ to decide the timing of the next National Assembly Elections.
As things are playing out, it seems increasingly likely that Pashinyan’s wish for sooner elections will come true.
Following the Yerevan City Elections, I heard the commentary of some who seem to believe that the 54% who chose not to vote in the Yerevan City Elections (the turnout was 46%) are somehow filled with those who do not support the Velvet Revolution. As a result of this belief, these commentators seemed to argue that if the ousted Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) was to participate, it would have attracted most of the “boycotting” voters and therefore won them the election.
These commentators are either drunk and/or living under a meteor. It is time they wake up and smell the change that has arrived in Armenian politics! Call it ‘superficial’, if you want. Call it ‘populist’, if that is what you believe. Call it ‘inadequate’, if you yearn for more. These are all fair opinions, but to suggest that Armenian politics has not changed is smacking fact in the face.
Judging by the continuing honeymoon period for Pashinyan and his Civil Contract Party, it seems they are the only ones who are actually prepared for this change. They are the ones writing the rules of the game, and then playing by those rules with no serious competition.
However, for the sake of democracy rather than monopoly – or even demagoguery – eventuating in the Republic, the other political aspirants in the country need to accept that there is a New Armenia and start posing the following question to themselves: “What is next for us?”
Pashinyan and his team are like Uber, where the other political parties are like taxis. Uber entered to disrupt a market in which the existing players – taxis – had rejected opportunities to renew, to innovate over many stagnant decades. In fact, when change arrived at their door, taxi companies were initially in denial, even trying to legislatively ban Uber until realizing that what they needed to do was to reinvent themselves, or die.
In Armenian politics, the ‘taxi’ forces do have this opportunity. With Armenia’s new Constitution stipulating rules that mandate a ‘minimum 1/3rd Opposition’ as well as a ‘three-party/bloc (some want to increase to four) minimum’ within the National Assembly, the dominance of Pashinyan’s ticket will not mean they will be allowed to hold all seats within the Parliament, regardless of the results of the Elections. This is a good thing, because as Uber has shown with some of its conduct, not all who disrupt are perfect, and even the very best deserve competition.
The Lusavor Hayastan Party (led by Edmon Marukyan) and the Republic Party (led by Aram Sargsyan) – working together but increasingly lonely with the distance growing between themselves and Pashinyan – have done a decent job of inventing and reinventing themselves, respectively. They have thus secured a narrow slot in future political reckoning. The newly-established Sasna Tsrer Party seems to have also begun its attempt to pigeon-hole itself into what it has identified as a vacant West-leaning Armenian nationalist segment within the country’s political landscape.
The likes of the Prosperous Armenia Party (led by Gagik Tsarukyan), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and the Heritage Party (led by Raffi Hovannisian) are at a precarious crossroads. Those who survive the immediate future will be the ones who do not deny the reality that has arrived. The ones who will survive will be those who can stop moping around about the existing ‘populism’, and accept that they are the ones who need to change in order to remain relevant in this ‘New Armenia’.
And importantly, the Armenian people should want these and other competing parties to remain relevant, as their presence will only serve to establish and protect the democracy that the people fought for in the ‘Velvet Revolution’.
I have purposely left out the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA – former party of Serzh Sarkisian) and the Armenian National Congress (led by first President Levon Ter Petrosian) from the aforementioned list. The reason is that I think their time is up, and the talented people they undoubtedly possess among their ranks should look for new homes or new brands in order to fulfill their potential to publicly serve Armenia.
There are many who will suggest that the ARF should be added to this list of ‘has been’ political parties with no hope for resuscitation. This article will disagree with that, as I see a major role for the ARF in future democracy-building in Armenia. However, the party will have to face a prerequisite requirement to make the changes required in order to remain relevant.
The naysayers have amplified in volume after the ARF’s embarrassing result in the Yerevan City Elections – where the 128-year-old party, which brought nationhood to Armenia 100 years ago, achieved only 1.62% of the vote. I believe that the reduction of the ARF vote in the Yerevan City Elections – from 18,000 in 2009 to 5,887 in 2018 – is at least partially as a result of the public’s rejection of the party’s decision to serve in Coalitions with past RPA governments, despite the reasons the party has articulated on many occasions. Further, the polls and current sentiment is a rejection of the ARF’s vocal support for the RPA’s leader, Serzh Sarkisian until he was forced into a resignation by the people’s movement.
If you agree that the party’s association with the RPA is a primary reason for existing angst against the ARF, then you agree that you are ranking the party low because of ‘policy’ rather than their ‘ideology’, their beliefs or their history. If other decisions had been made, or can be made, the ARF would have and can still have an important role in the establishment of a mature democracy in the New Armenia.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has suggested he has no ideology, declaring during his May confirmation hearings to the National Assembly, that “the era for ‘-isms’ [e.g. socialism, communism, capitalism, etc] is over”. While this quote is cute, history shows it will not remain true, and a shrewd political operator like Pashinyan knows this. When he sets future economic policies, Pashinyan will reveal what ‘-ism’ or ‘-isms’ he and his surrounding folks stand for. There have already been a few hints to this end, and there will be more as time passes and decisions are made.
This is where Armenia needs a renewed ARF. An ARF that is the pride of its traditional, center-left, democratic socialist base. An ARF uniquely strengthened by its multinational presence in over 30 countries, with the tens of thousands of members in its and its associated organizations able to serve as a great resource for the New Armenia. As previously stated, the party’s perceived movement away from their core beliefs – by partnering with a clearly right-wing, oligarch-backed Serzh Sarkisian and RPA – has harmed its public standing to a great degree.
Therefore when the ARF asks “what’s next for us?”, they must answer “a return to our roots”. Armenia needs a party that has policies focused most specifically on workers and small businesses, but also on women’s and minority rights, while staying true to Artsakh and a United Armenia. The ARF can fulfil this role better than anyone in Armenia, as no other political entity is set in its ideology and its roots like the ARF.
If this happens, it will force Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party and other parties in Armenia’s scene to start taking positions on the key policies being presented. This will reveal where the government stands on key issues, where the Opposition stands, who the ‘third’, ‘cross-parties’ or ‘independents’ are, and this process will mature political debate and democracy in Armenia.
Barring major developments, Pashinyan and Civil Contract will probably win the next few Parliamentary elections, but the establishment of mature polity in Armenia will draw a map for the public, who will know they have choices for when they want them. Giving them these choices is what democracy is about. It is what the ARF must be focused on as it looks at itself in the mirror.
If the party re-aligns, it will need to do so with the understanding that much damage has already been done to its brand for reasons already stated. To revamp the brand and to return supporters to it, the ARF might need to acknowledge its mistakes during a period that has been emphatically rejected by the Armenian public. Admitting to its errors, renewing and refocusing can begin the ARF’s ‘12 steps’ towards electoral rehabilitation. Every party makes mistakes, but only a big party with a proud history and stringent processes like the ARF can muster the courage to review and revamp.
This renewed ARF needs to lead the way with their center-left policies fighting for gender equality, pensions for the elderly and the unemployed, tax policies benefiting small business and breaking up monopolies. They need to be arguing for Medicare-type social policies, interest-free tertiary education loans, a war on poverty, preservation of freedom of speech, protection of human rights and the environment, establishment of retirement benefits, and of course, workers’ rights.
This renewed ARF can help build democracy in Armenia.