Moot Point?: Proportional v Majoritarian debate goes on despite constitutional amendment

Photo: Photolur

Armenia’s amended Constitution scraps the hitherto applied mixed system of electoral voting and parliamentary representation and replaces it with an all-proportional one, but debate over whether elements of the majoritarian system should be retained in the elections appears to continue in the country’s political circles.

Successive parliaments in Armenia were elected by a system containing, in a certain proportion, both proportional (party-list) and majoritarian (single-mandate) elements of voting. In particular, the current National Assembly consists of 90 members elected through party lists and 41 members elected from single-mandate constituencies.

The change of the Constitution reflecting the longstanding demand of leading opposition parties and groups to abolish the majoritarian vote appears to have created another challenge that needs to be addressed in a country where there is a unicameral parliament and where a third of the population and the bulk of businesses are concentrated in capital Yerevan.

Government officials insist that the proposed Electoral Code still provides an all-proportional voting system. But the provision that voters in 13 constituencies into which Armenia is likely to be divided will also be offered to vote for concrete party candidates in their districts has raised questions among opposition parties that consider it to be an element of the majoritarian election and demand that a pure all-proportional system where voters cast their votes only for political parties be ensured.

Little debate on the voting systems preceded the wider constitutional reform that resulted in the change after being approved in a nationwide referendum last year. Experts say that each system contains both positive and negative elements as does their mixture. But one of the arguments of those who insist on the preservation of certain elements of the majoritarian vote is that in conditions of having a unicameral parliament an all-proportional voting system in practice will not ensure due representation of all provinces and communities in the legislature.

While a majority of Armenia’s political spectrum now favors the all-proportional voting system, differing only on its variations, some politicians continue to believe that Armenia should not have scrapped the opportunity of a partly majoritarian vote.

In the new constitutional reality of Armenia politicians can only exist as long as they are affiliated with political parties as in the long run they will need this affiliation to stand for elections.

While in practical terms, in order to be a successful majoritarian candidate, one also had to enjoy support of political parties under the previous system, every now and then there appeared some maverick politicians who managed to win in their constituencies and get into parliament. The all-proportional voting system precludes that.

Besides, it is believed that majoritarian candidates – whether with party affiliation or not – have a stronger sense of connection with their voters and better represent their immediate interests in the legislature.

On the downside, experts mention the circumstance that when vying for votes in single-mandate elections candidates tend to campaign on very local issues that have little or nothing to do with issues of national concern, and election pledges are often limited to improvement of local infrastructure, such as asphalting the roads, building or repairing schools and kindergartens, providing irrigation water, etc. – a function that is rather reserved for local government bodies. In seeking to get the majoritarian elections scrapped, Armenia’s opposition argued that since most majoritarian candidates are wealthy government-connected local strongmen they tend to use more extensively the so-called administrative resources as well as engage in vote buying and rigging schemes. The opposition thus argues that in the Armenian reality scrapping majoritarian elections will help hold a cleaner vote in elections where candidates campaign along political lines.

The government suggests that all concerns, including those regarding due representation, be addressed in the country’s electoral laws. Minister David Harutyunyan, the chief of government staff, explains that the proposed system is called a proportional system with open lists or a combination of open and closed lists.

Tevan Poghosyan, who represents the opposition Heritage faction in parliament, says that in order to be elected to the National Assembly a local politician will now have to be included in one of the parties’ slates.

“Mechanisms of the slates can be different: open, closed, semi-open, semi-closed. These are all variations of the proportional vote. These mechanisms contribute to the development of political parties, because people should understand the rating system and the regional concept should also be included so that political parties can also be developed in the regions,” he says.

According to him, in provinces it is difficult for the opposition to field a considerable number of candidates who would be recognizable enough for the public and besides would be able to stand local competition. On the other hand, he says, if parties do not undergo transformations in this sense, regional party structures will never develop.

Poghosyan brings the example of young fledgling political parties that are trying to win political representation also in local elections. Among these parties he mentions Bright Armenia, Civil Contract, as well as Armenian Revival that was recently established by way of smaller political parties and nongovernment organizations uniting on the existing Orinats Yerkir platform.

“They should also be able to compete in the regions rather than just restrict their activities to Yerevan offices. This competition will, in turn, bring to their becoming stronger, which is a positive thing,” says the opposition lawmaker, at the same time acknowledging that in this sense the ruling party or parties always have better starting positions.

Hrair Tovmasyan, the Chief of Staff at the National Assembly, explains why as one of the co-authors of the draft Electoral Code he thinks that the variant of proportional representation they suggest is the optimal one.

“The latest analysis of closed and open lists was made by the [Council of Europe’s] Venice Commission in February. It looked at the experience of 61 countries… It is interesting that apart from four countries where there is a majoritarian voting system, in the other countries where there is a mixed system half of the candidates pass by closed lists and half by open lists. In countries where democracy is not at a due level it is recommended to use open lists, but in order not to cause rifts inside parties it is not recommended that they apply countrywide,” Tovmasyan said during a recent discussion with opposition and civil society representatives.

In the past elections more than two-thirds of parliamentarians are elected by party lists. But many opposition parties fear that under the amended law that will formally imply a switch to an all-proportional voting system, only half of candidates will actually get into parliament by proportional lists, while the rest will be elected in a rating ballot essentially reminding a majoritiarian vote.

Edmon Marukyan, who heads the recently established Bright Armenia Party, strongly opposes this proposed “rating” system, because he thinks that it is a “hidden” majoritarian system that he says is even worse for Armenia than the current mixed system.

“I have always been an advocate of a 100-percent majoritarian system, but since in this Constitution they changed it to a 100-percent proportional system, I argue that we need to stick to what is written down there rather than try to use tricks and pass whatever is preferable for the authorities,” he says.

“Under the rating system people cast their votes in favor of concrete people, and this competition will, in fact, be not under the aegis of political parties, but will be among individual candidates. In that case the authorities will again have an opportunity to lower the political level of elections through administrative resources and money, something that we want to avoid.”

It is interesting that a large number of European democracies, such as Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia, Finland, use the proportional voting system in their legislative elections. But the forms of proportional ballots they apply vary (open and closed candidates’ lists, a mixed system, transferable votes, a rating system and others).

While the “proportional v majoritarian” debate continues in Armenia in view of the discussions of changes in the electoral laws, an overwhelming majority of local politicians and experts still appear to agree that whatever the legal framework is, it is more important to ensure its due application for free, fair and truly democratic elections to be held in the country.

Armenia’s next parliamentary elections are due in spring 2017.