Democracy, populism and anxiety in Armenia -

Democracy, populism and anxiety in Armenia

Democracy, populism and anxiety in Armenia

The citizens of Armenia will go to voting stations next Sunday, December 9th, in the most decisive – and divisive -- elections in our modern history. 


After having transformed into parliamentary republic in April, and most importantly following the massive street protests that resulted in government change in May, these snap parliamentary elections are going to be a crucial democratic maturity test for our country. In the past decade the government and our political team have knitted the fabric of democratic governance, which now should not fail.


Those who follow political developments in Armenia – a small democratic nation in the South Caucasus landlocked between Europe, Russia, Iran and Turkey – know that the ruling “My Step” political movement is expected to win by landslide on December 9th, and it’s leader Nikol Pashinyan will probably be Armenia’s next Prime Minister.


The ongoing two-week race to the parliament is the most divisive campaign in modern Armenian history. In the course of early elections to the capital Yerevan’s municipality in September, PM Pashinyan and his allies went as far as dividing the society into “blacks” and “whites” – those who vote for their party, and those who don’t and thereby have to be ostracized. As a result of this, regional elections in October had in average 35% voter turnout – which is not typical in post-revolutionary societies. In the parliamentary campaign this black and white thinking progressed into more systematic psychological oppression of “the others”. 


The Republican party, is being blamed for every possible sin, while -- oddly -- all our major policies are being meticulously continued by the revolutionaries. This includes reforms in the army, pension system, judiciary, as well as foreign policy doctrine, which have been re-validated by the new government, despite their bold criticism in the past years.


We in the Republican party are conscious of our past, and have ambitious internal reform agenda starting next year. Meanwhile, having accumulated significant experience in the government, we cannot – and should not – stand idle against the concerns and anxiety of our vast followership. People are concerned for various reasons, but chiefly – because there are no foreign investments flooding the country, there are frightening perspectives of job cuts, especially in the public sector, possible introduction of new forms of taxation on remittances, and most importantly -- security issues, including the ongoing Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) conflict. 


In these realities we are campaigning to assure balance in the National Assembly, essentially with two-fold agenda. 


First, we have to check and balance Prime Minister Pashinyan and his populist movement. In the past few months our people have heard enough promises and seen little or no walk on that talk. In the world of instant messaging and fierce political competition in the social media, a credible – not puppet – opposition has to work hard to make the best use of our national mobilisation. Without a serious opposition force in the parliament it will become an “echo chamber” for the populist Prime Minister and that’s a sure recipe for the demise of our democratic system. Armenia has a unique chance of breakthrough in many spheres and we have to contribute our fair share of effort.


And second – even though the Republicans are satisfied to see our policies being continued by the ‘revolutionaries’, we and our supporters are concerned that, because of lack of experience or vision, new authorities are already causing troubles for the country. All the miscalculations in foreign policy – with the European Union, the United States or Russia alike – are going to have immediate effect on the plight of Nagorno Karabakh, which is of existential value for our nation. 


In the past few years Mr Pashinyan has been steadily increasing numbers of his followers by inflammatory and populist speeches from the parliament rostrum. Since last Spring he has attracted large masses by offering simple answers to difficult questions. And this is nothing new in the world. Populist leaders here and there gain momentum, and then quickly slide down when big promises do not materialize. What they leave behind is divided society. For a nation with security challenges including two out of four borders under blockade, Iran as a sanctioned neighbour, and military threats from another oil dictatorship – it can result in a catastrophe. 


There are many modern examples of populist leaders climbing to power with democratic slogans which soon transform into a march against democracy. In Armenia we experience the same ‘usual suspect’ anti-establishment sentiments as in many countries around the globe. Absent well-established middle class and not fully capable middle level managers in the public sector – populist government is an experiment to fail. 


A true democracy in Armenia needs a strong government, staffed with skilled professionals and not amateurs, and a strong opposition. By destiny, it's the Republican party that can become the only credible check against populist power grab as, inter alia, we have much to prove, first of all to our society. 


On December 9th, our people have to faithfully discharge their right to vote. Citizens’ participation with no fear, readiness to take responsibility, as well as Armenia’s international partners’ and allies’ readiness to keep their eyes wide open will be crucial for our democracy to endure. 


Vigen Sargsian is the First Deputy Chairman of the Republican Party of Armenia. He was Armenian Defense Minister and Head of the Armenian President’s Administration.


 These views are his own.


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