The Institution: What’s this election for, anyway?

Parliamentarianism is not new in Armenia, but its traditions are still in the making. The May 12 elections are certain to add a new page in the history of Armenia’s fledgling democracy.

Parliament mini-facts

* Usually the NA adopts laws and resolutions by the majority of votes of deputies participating in the voting with the secured quorum (more than half of the total number of deputies).

* The NA has standing committees for the preliminary review of draft legislation and other issues and may form interim commissions for temporary matters.

* The right to legislative initiative in the NA belongs to the deputies and the Government.

* The NA also adopts the state budget upon its submission by the Government and oversees the implementation of the state budget, as well as the use of loans and credits received from foreign governments and international organizations.

* The NA also ratifies, suspends or denounces Armenia’s international treaties.

* The NA may pass a vote of no confidence in the government and initiate a motion to impeach the president.

The development of parliamentarianism in Armenia in modern times began in 1918 when Armenia briefly gained independence after World War I. The parliament of the short-lived first republic (1918-1920) was representative, multi-party and even had opposition and female members (while women in many western democracies were still fighting for suffrage). During its existence that parliament adopted more than 300 laws related to home and foreign policy.

Parliamentarianism in Armenia did not cease completely with the establishment of Soviet orders, however there was no pluralism of parties and opinions in the Soviet times and the function of Soviet Armenia’s parliament (then Supreme Soviet or Council) or deputies elected from Armenia to the USSR Supreme Soviet was reduced to rubberstamping the legislation handed down from the communist government.

The legislature’s role increased dramatically with independence.

The Constitution adopted in 1995 completed the stage of the formation of parliamentarianism in Armenia. Certain changes related to the National Assembly (NA) were introduced in the Constitution following the 2005 referendum. And also certain changes were introduced in the electoral code in the recent period.

The role of parliament will admittedly increase as the amendments to the constitution are enforced. For the first time the parliament will be elected for a period of five years and its majority is expected to play a greater role in the formation of the government.

Yet, the lack of long-standing traditions of parliamentarianism and in fact a presidential-style government in the country in the last 15 years or so are also reflected in public perceptions of deputies and their work.

A 2006 survey by the Caucasus Research Resource Center shows that in particular Armenians’ trust towards the president is higher, relative to the parliament.

Another recent nationwide study conducted by the Gallup organization shows that “taking care of people” features prominently in Armenians’ perceptions of what a parliamentary candidate should do along with such characteristics as “being honest and objective” and “having a democrat’s outlook”. Only six percent of 1,200 respondents of the survey said they cared about a parliamentarian’s professionalism.

Similar surveys demonstrate that while people clearly formulate their demands to parliamentarians, many do not have a clear idea of what a parliamentarian’s job is and what scope of functions he performs and powers enjoys.

According to a classical definition, a parliamentarian’s main functions are to represent a constituency and to make laws.

Ruben Torosyan, Chairman of the Supreme Council Deputies Club, an NGO representing former deputies, says Armenian parliamentarianism was formalized in 1990-1995, but adds that since then it has experienced a decline.

“Who saw one deputy voting for another back then?,” says Torosyan, who was a deputy of the Supreme Council in the early 90s and took an immediate part in the establishment of Armenia’s post-Soviet legislature, referring to the current practice of one MP voting for another who is absent from the session during crucial voting.

“What we managed to create then was not consolidated in the future,” he says.

According to Torosyan, there is a greater fusion of the executive and legislative branches of power now than before, which, he says, confuses the public.

Election pledges of candidates such as to lay asphalt, improve yards, solve problems with communal services and others that are first of all the function and obligation of central, municipal and local authorities, as well as the mixture of deputies elected by the proportional and majority systems in the unicameral parliament add to this confusion.

“Free and fair conduct of the elections should be a priority for each of us.”

President Robert Kocharyan

“As a result, ordinary voters often ascribe the executive functions to deputies,” Torosyan says.

For the first time the 131-seat National Assembly to be elected next month will have the number of deputies elected under the majority system cut from 75 to 41, while political parties will have greater representation as the number of deputies elected from party lists will increase from 56 to 90.

The change of this ratio was one of the major amendments introduced in the electoral law in 2005. It is supposed to boost the struggle of political platforms in the country.

“The advantage of the proportional system is that it ensures better representation, makes it easier for political parties to campaign, requires less spending, and in our conditions this system also makes it easier to control the course of the ballot and the vote count. That’s why opposition parties seek an all-proportional system,” says political analyst David Petrosyan.

“We failed in the previous elections and have no room [for another setback] now.”

Minister of Foreign Affairs Vardan Oskanian

Armenia’s Constitution makes any registered voter, at least age 25, who has been a citizen and permanent resident of Armenia for the preceding five years eligible to be elected as deputy.

Constitutionally, a deputy may not be engaged in entrepreneurial activities, hold an office in state and local self-government bodies or in commercial organizations, or engage in any other paid occupation, except for scientific, educational and creative work.

Under the Constitution there is no imperative mandate to fulfill campaign promises. Deputies are to be guided by their “conscience and convictions”.

One of the privileges enjoyed by parliamentarians is so-called parliamentary immunity, which means that NA members cannot be arrested and subjected to administrative or criminal liability without the NA’s agreement.

“I’ll do my best to have the elections free, fair and transparent.”

Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan

This provision has caused controversy as some believe it makes parliament a safe haven for oligarchs and businessmen with alleged criminal connections.

A current candidate, retired army corps commander Seyran Saroyan (contesting a parliament seat from Etchmiadzin), said in a recent interview it would be his first objective to scrap parliamentary immunity if he was elected. “And we’ll then see whether so many people will again scramble to get into parliament,” he told RFE/RL.