How people elect parliaments
In contrast to the increasingly presidential governments seen in nations such as Turkey and Russia, the little Caucuses republic of Armenia has deliberately shifted to a parliamentary system of government, where the national executive will be formed from a majority in the Azgayin Zhoghov – the National Assembly.
In doing so, the Armenians have adopted a party-proportional voting system with some very unusual twists, designed to ensure that a leading party secures majority government.
Armenians elected their first Assembly under the new system last Sunday.
Armenia’s National Assembly previously has a composite make-up, with 90 seats awarded to political parties in a party-based proportional system, together with 41 single-member electorates filled by first-past-the-post (plurality) voting.
Armenia’s National Assembly building in the capitol, Yerevan (image: Wikipedia)
The constitutional reform of the system for electing the Assembly was intended to compliment a shift away from a presidential style of government to one more parliamentary in nature.
In moving away from a ‘personality-based’ political system, however, they have created a system where voters do not directly elect most of the Assembly, but rather where political parties will control at least half (and arguably all) of the candidates who win parliamentary seats.
When they voted last Sunday Armenian voters were only able to support one selected political party or coalition. They were also able to mark a single supporting vote for one of the party’s local candidates in whichever of 13 electoral regions the voter lived.
Parties that won 5% or more of the national vote, or coalitions which won 7% or more, were eligible to get seats. On the preliminary results four parties achieved this threshold – the governing Republican Party (49%), the opposition Prosperous Armenia coalition (including the leading opposition party Tsarukyan) (27%), the Yelk (Way Out) coalition (7.8%) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation party (6.6%). Five other parties and coalitions failed to reach the threshold.
Curiously, the 49% vote share scored by the Republicans is sharply up on the 33% prediction identified by opinion polls just a few weeks ago, while the three other successful coalitions and parties have won close to the vote shares predicted for them.
In each of the 13 electoral regions the proportional ratios of those four vote shares will now be used to allocate that region’s allotted number of seats.
For each party, half their seats will come from the party’s national list of nominees – which the voters have no control over – and the other half will come from the local candidates, selected in the order of the votes won by each candidate locally.
So while the voters will have some influence over up to half the members of the Assembly, the other half will be fully party-appointed, making it virtually impossible for the nation’s leading party politicians to fail to get elected.
But that’s not all. The system will be carefully calibrated to ensure that the leading party gets a solid majority in parliament, whatever the vote shares.
The first rule is that the leading party, if it wins 50% of the vote but fails to win 54% of the initial 101 seats, will be awarded extra seats until it has 54% of the new total.
That rule may not be needed here, since even though it appears to have fallen just short of winning 50% of the vote, the Republican Party’s sizeable lead over other parties actually amounts to around 54% of the aggregate vote shares of the four seat-eligible parties.
The rounding that inevitably occurs in applying proportionality to the parties in the 13 regions – which have an average of around 8 seats each – will likely also favour the dominant Republicans.
So they should end up with at least 54% of the seats on the initial distribution.
The Constitution appears to dictate that a party that wins less than 50% of the vote is obliged to negotiate with other Assembly parties to find a new governing coalition which does claim at least 54% of the seats in the Assembly between them.
If no governing coalition with 54% of the seats can be formed, a second national run-off vote is held between the two leading parties, and the winner of that vote is then awarded bonus seats (on top of those already elected) to bring it up to 54% of the revised seat total.
But if the Republicans have already managed to win 54% of the seats, this second rule may also already be satisfied.
Finally, there is a counterbalancing rule that if a truly dominant party initially gets over two-thirds of the seats (67 seats on the first allocation), then the opposition parties are awarded bonus seats to bring the dominant party down to just below two-thirds of the Assembly. The Republicans don’t appear to be so far ahead on seat allocations that this rule will be needed.
It’s pretty innovative stuff, designed to ensure that some leading political group gets a stable majority in the parliament, and prevent the possibility of minority government beholden to multiple smaller parties.
It also ensures that opposition parties are not totally crushed. Indeed, under the constitutional reforms just 25% of the Assembly’s members will have the power to launch parliamentary inquiries – another interesting innovation.
While technically this has the appearance of an electoral stability mechanism, even if it does distort voter intentions – similar to those used in Italy and Greece – there is also a sense that the Armenian Republican Party designed the system to ensure that their governing power would remain strong.
The full effect of these rules may need to await a closer election, however. The Republican Party seems to be dominating the landscape for now.
Armenian elections are not, it must be said, without accusations of electoral manipulation by the dominant party regime, which has governed Armenia continually since independence in 1991. The OSCE, which monitors international elections in Europe and nearby nations, has criticized the conduct of the poll.
Thomas de Waal, Carnegie Europe – All Change In Armenia (8 December 2015)
Armenian Weekly (English) – Elections in Armenia Explained: New Rules, New Voting, New Powers (28 February 2017)
Garen Yegparian – Understanding the New System (3 March 2017)
Charles Richardson, Crikey – Three quick previews: Armenia, Serbia, Ecuador (31 March 2017)
ARKA News Agency (English) – Polls open for Armenians to elect new parliament (2 April 2017)
Al Jazeera – Armenia elections tainted by vote-buying: OSCE monitors (3 April 2017)