Communiqué: Free and Fair Elections in Post-Soviet Armenia

October 31, 2012
Communiqué: Free and Fair Elections in Post-Soviet Armenia
Credit: U.S. State Department

Mason Fellow Researches Solutions for Sustainable Democracy

By Kate Hoagland – Communiqué: Fall 2012, Volume 11

“Elections are my passion – I believe that they are the basis for a sustainable democracy,” said Lilit Ohanyan, one of the Ash Center’s four Ford Foundation Mason Fellows for the 2012-2013 academic year. “However, free and fair elections on their own are not enough of a guarantee for a country to move in the right direction, and at HKS, I am trying to explore ways of ensuring that liberal democracy flourishes.” With both the American presidential election this November and the sixth-ever presidential election in Armenia this February, Ohanyan has much material to study.

Ohanyan, a HKS Mid-Career MPA student, is on leave from the U.S. Embassy in Armenia, where she served as a political specialist focusing on improving democratic processes in Armenia. Throughout her career, she spearheaded USAID-funded training programs for the country’s parliamentarians, political parties, civil society leaders, and journalists to expose them to new models for improving the electoral process in Armenia. “We hoped to demonstrate to all stakeholders, that it is possible to win an election in fair competition.” said Ohanyan. “It requires more work and a lot more strategic planning, but the result is much more sustainable.”

She also advised local NGOs on methods for enhancing government accountability and transparency, and counseled the media on ways to deliver objective, balanced campaign coverage to allow voters to make more informed choices. Much of her counsel drew upon Western models for electoral campaigning, knowledge she gained through her former role with the U.S. National Democratic Institute in Armenia.

While the Republic of Armenia was formally recognized as an independent country upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the trappings of its Soviet past are still visible. Voter apathy is widespread: according to a March 2012 poll commissioned by the U.S. National Democratic Institute, only 12 percent of voters expected last May’s parliamentarian elections to be democratic. Ohanyan recalls that polling station conduct was reportedly close to ideal during this election, as was media coverage, but many voters were rumored to have taken bribes for their votes outside of the polls. Add to this the country’s murky past of electoral violations from ballot box stuffing to number tampering and bribes and Ohanyan believes there is much more work to do. Observers reported such corruption came to a head with the 2008 presidential election, in which current President Serzh Sargsyan won with over 50 percent of the vote despite a groundswell of support for Levon Tev-Petrosyan, who ran on an anti-corruption campaign. For nine days, tens of thousands rallied in the capital city’s Freedom Square protesting the election results; when the police dispersed the crowds, riots broke out, and the country imposed a state of emergency.

“The frustration with the electoral process is a huge issue,” said Ohanyan. “You hear more and more, ‘I will not vote because it doesn’t matter, and it’s not going to be counted correctly.’”

Youth Activism and a More Open Administration
Yet, Ohanyan is seeing positive signs of gradual change both in the new administration and among young voters. She notes that in addition to his day job leading the country, President Sargsyan heads up the country’s chess federation and the skills he has learned on the chess board are translating into a unique governing style: “Instead of more aggressive tactics, he strategizes and is more willing to enter into a dialogue with parties holding different viewpoints,” said Ohanyan.

Ohanyan is also witnessing a new wave of community engagement among the country’s youth, specifically around environmental and historic preservation issues. In 2010, the Armenian government granted a contract to Robshin Ltd. to build a hydroelectric plant over the Trchkan waterfall, a tourist-destination and natural landmark in Northern Armenia. Outraged youth created the successful “Save Trchkan Waterfall” Facebook campaign, and as their cause swelled to 4,500 members, groups of activists peacefully camped out by the waterfall for months, attracting attention for their innocent campfire sing-alongs while supporters in government lobbied their cause.

“Their campaign was not in the face of the authorities nor conducted in an aggressive manner,” said Ohanyan. “Instead they were there to voice their concerns and encourage the government to work with them.” In November of 2011, the government cancelled all construction of the hydroelectric plant. Over the last couple years, these youth groups have had several other successes preserving green spaces and protecting historic buildings from demolishment.

Such activism and civic engagement among Armenia’s next generation give Ohanyan hope for the future of her country. “My hope is that we will find new ways to work together towards the goal of liberal, sustainable democracy. These young people and certain reformers holding government positions have the potential of working together towards the goal of making meaningful change. They embody that hope.”