By Markar Melkonian
Some members of Armenia’s opposition are crying foul, citing instances of vote-buying and undue influence in the April 2 National Assembly election, in which the current party of power, the Republican Party, won 49% of the 1.58 million votes cast. The allegations, of course, are not entirely without merit.
The party of power was able to exert pressure on public employees and other voters, and more than one party probably bought votes. But this time around, the international observers do not believe that these entirely expected “irregularities” played much of a role in the outcome of the election.
For decades, opponents of incumbent administrations in Yerevan have been obsessed with talk about free and fair elections. By official standards, the April 2 election, which the OSCE described as “well administered,” appears to have been an improvement of over past ones. Cameras and voter authentication devices operated in polling stations; election observers arrived on cue, the Central Election Commission published signed voter lists, and, of course “civil society” (a buzzword that does not appear to designate anything three-dimensional) is said to have participated. The election, then, conformed to the requirements of the champions of what one commentator has described as the “fetishization of elections.” (Armine Ishkhanian, “Armenia’s Election: The Status Quo Wins at the Expense of Democracy,” 4 April, 2017.)
Every few years eligible voters in Armenia are permitted to choose among pre-selected candidates for the National Assembly and the chief executive. The leading candidates are those with connections and access to enough money to finance a high-profile national campaign. Whether or not the election is technically “free and fair,” it will bear out the voters’ assumption that the rich will always rule. In other words, electoral democracy in countries like Armenia, at least at the national level, amounts to a ritual to legitimize plutocracy. Pro-democracy activists, the big NGO’s, the corporate media, and leaders in Western capitals extol this ritual as the epitome of democracy.
In countries like Armenia, the question seldom arises whether a free and fair election can take place when the poor and the working class majority are not represented. The big NGO’s have played their role to ensure that neither election campaigns nor public discourse will stray from the prescribed pro-capitalist vocabulary and options. Many of the very same agencies that fetishize elections also do what they can to ensure that citizens view the passing scene only through the pinhole of pro-capitalist propaganda. Voters are expected to limit their attention to debates about whether Capitalist Clique A will rule Armenia, or Capitalist Clique B. They are expected to look no further than debates as to whether pensions and public lands will be privatized sooner or a little later. Or whether cuts to public education, healthcare, and social programs will be deep or even deeper. Or whether those cuts will take place immediately or a little later. Or whether bus and electricity rates will rise now or only eventually. Or whether the mining companies get to continue to poison lots of rivers and aquifers or lots and lots of them.
From time to time our compatriots have taken to the streets, sometimes by the thousands, to protest these policies. But the protesters themselves have seldom questioned the free market assumptions that justify the objectionable policies. Not even the protest leaders have raised the question: What kind of economic “efficiency” is it, exactly, that Armenia’s return to the free market has wrought over the past twenty-seven years? What kind of “economic science” is it that has failed for decades to deliver much more than misery to the majority, and yet continues to claim the status of unquestioned truth?
Armenia is a country with an official thirty percent poverty rate, more than forty percent youth unemployment, and wave after wave of emigration. Commentators have been puzzled why, in a country like that, voters would return an incumbent administration to office. Fear of change might well have played a role in the victory of the Republican Party. Many voters, perhaps, were unwilling to cast ballots for the several parties and alliances that they associated with dangerous anti-Russian agendas. But perhaps, too, as in so many other elections, the outcome had much to do with the perceived absence of a realistic alternative.
Reviewing the list of the leading parties, alliances, and personalities that competed in the 2 April election, it is striking that none of them offered an alternative to the same old neoliberal orientation that has impoverished and depopulated the country for the past twenty-seven ears. The Armenian Communist Party is the party that has most consistently addressed the interests of the country’s long-maligned workers and the long-neglected poor. But the Communists received 0.74% of votes—fewer than 12,000 votes in all--and as a consequence it has no seats, zero, in the new National Assembly.
Of course, most of the parties and alliances advertised themselves as agents of change. “Both ruling and opposition parties had campaigned on populist promises such as ‘jobs, wages, pensions,’” a pollster in Armenia recently observed. “That’s what matters to the voters” in Armenia. (Gevorg Poghosyan, in an interview with AFP, quoted in Euractive.com, 4 April 2017.) But the kind of change that most of the contenders recommended was mega-doses of the same neoliberal kool aid that Armenians have been drinking for the past three decades.
Gagik Tsarukyan, the leader of the second-place alliance bearing his name, proposed a “technocratic government that understands the modern world.” In recent decades, voters in a dozen countries from Argentina to Iceland have repudiated self-described technocratic regimes that, as it turns out, bankrupted their countries, in the service of a small circle of plutocrats and their international patrons in G-7 capitals. At this point, a Mexican politician would loose an election by promising a “technocratic government.” Mexican voters, it seems, understand “the modern world” considerably better than the Tsarukyan admirers do.
At a time when electorates in dozens of countries are repudiating neoliberalism, Armenia’s largest parties and alliances continue to uphold the very same dogmas that have registered such a dismal record of failure for most of our compatriots. The leaders of Armenia’s largest parties and blocs continue to support the same neoliberal dogmas that impoverished Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, and that provoked Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Indeed, even voters in the USA repudiated neoliberalism in the last presidential election—or at least they imagined they were doing something like that. But it looks as though, even after American voters have tried (unsuccessfully, as we will see) to jump off the neoliberal train, Armenians are determined to stay on that broken-down contraption and ride it to national oblivion.
In Armenia, the poor, the working class, the unemployed, the underemployed, the self-employed, and their dependents make up the overwhelming majority of the population. After the April 2 elections, this majority will still lack representation in the National Assembly. As long as the majority has no representation in the National Assembly, there is no pluralism in the national legislature, and it is not an institution of representative democracy.
Under the new constitution ratified in 2015, Armenia is making a transition to a parliamentary system and proportional representation. This might open the door a crack for electoral inroads by genuine representatives of Armenia’s workers and poor. Whether it will or not, and whether or not this will make a difference for the poor and working-class majority—these are open questions.
Markar Melkonian is a teacher and an author. His books include Richard Rorty’s Politics: Liberalism at the End of the American Century (1999), Marxism: A Post-Cold War Primer (Westview Press, 1996), and My Brother’s Road (2005).