Lessons from Armenia’s Parliamentary Elections
BY MICHAEL MENSOIAN
Given its enviable political history and proven selfless service to the Armenian people and the nation, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation still remains a marginal political party in Armenia. In the May 2012 parliamentary elections, the ARF garnered less than 6 percent of the votes cast. From a cadre of 16 parliamentary members, the party’s representation was reduced to just 6 members. This poor showing was due in part to a combination of fabricated obstacles and questionable activities that gave the ruling party a distinct and unfair advantage.
However, that being said, whether the ARF is engaged in a parliamentary or a presidential election, it never rises above its marginal political status. This raises the question why. The obvious answer may be that the party’s message of hope and change does not resonate with the voter. One of several reasons may be that the Armenian voter has survived for some 20 years under a political system that easily bred skepticism and cynicism. This, in turn, tends to induce a degree of resignation and acceptance of conditions as they are.
The compendium of shortcomings that formed the election platform of the ARF for the recent parliamentary elections essentially promised to correct almost everything that was wrong with the present system. The proverbial man-in-the-street who has suffered the consequences of this debilitating system could have compiled this platform for the ARF. The party must have realized that it could not deliver on such an extensive range of issues even if it had doubled its representation in parliament from 16 to 32 members. Obviously, the voters must have understood as much.
I don’t know at what point we will accept the fact that something is seriously amiss. Each year that passes and each election where we join the other five percent-ers (parties that just meet the five percent vote threshold) diminishes our influence, our prestige, and our credibility. It is an intolerable situation that must be corrected if the ARF is to continue in a manner that does justice to our political heritage.
The Dashnaktsutiun is unlike any of the political parties that clutter the Armenian political landscape. Vahan Hovannessian put it succinctly in a recent interview when he stated that the enduring strength of the Dashnaktsutiun is based on a foundation of ideas, ideology, and vision for the future.
Hovannessian added that the present political parties in Armenia have formed around either a charismatic figure such as a military leader; a center of power; or simply a source of wealth. Such political parties have no ideological moorings and are free to pursue courses of action that may or may not reflect the needs of the electorate or the interests of the Armenian state.
Our agenda is determined by the enduring value of our core beliefs. We are a revolutionary party, or at least that is the defining term in our name. We cannot be the fedayees of 100 years ago, but that does not prevent us from being the political fedayees of the here and now. The role of the revolutionary in society is a difficult one to fulfill as he constantly challenges the status quo to improve the quality of life of the worker or to protect the interests of the nation. It is a challenge that carries the serious risk of retribution from an administration that may feel threatened, or from entrenched interest groups such as the Armenian oligarchs who are concerned that their power and wealth are at stake. No one can force a man to be a revolutionary, but neither can a man be one simply by donning the cloak of a revolutionary.
Maybe it is just me, but I see the Dashnaktsutiun as a crusade, not as a mundane political party. It hurts when we take timid steps instead of the bold, imaginative, and persistent action required to address the vital issues that affect our brothers and sisters not only in Armenia, but in Artsakh and Javakhk, as well. Sometimes it seems that we are obsessed with recognizing the dead at the cost of sacrificing the living.
The situation in Armenia cannot be allowed to deteriorate further. Each year, contrary to the favorable but meaningless statistic trotted out by the administration, the economy contracts, unemployment rises, population decreases, emigration increases, and justice is blinded by power and wealth. At what point in time will the ARF realize that voter apathy and indifference cannot be overcome by election platforms or anointing a candidate to run in presidential elections.
Let’s give some thought to who we are and how that determines what it is that we must do. Hai Tahd is strictly a Dashnaktsutiun Manifesto. It was enunciated by the ARF, nurtured by the ARF, and has been a compelling objective of its political agenda since the takeover of the first free and independent Republic of Armenia by the Russian Bolsheviks. Hai Tahd and the Dashnaktsutiun have become inseparable in the minds of most if not all Armenians. However, changes have occurred that have significantly affected the scope and the priorities of Hai Tahd and the ARF.
One such change is Artsakh’s de facto independence, which should have automatically preempted Hai Tahd‘s historic agenda. The importance of Artsakh cannot be overestimated. It is the first time in modern Armenian history (1900 to the present) that our people have liberated themselves and historic Armenian lands from their Turkic adversaries. If the ARF fails to be perceived as a vital force in Artsakh’s development and its ultimate independence (either de jure recognition or independence by default) then it is fair for Armenians to question the ability of the Dashnaktsutiun to be the stewards of Hai Tahd. Artsakh has become the building block upon which Hai Tahd now rests. Our long-time emotional involvement with recognition, or Wilsonian Armenia or Kars-Ardahan should not cloud our judgment concerning priorities.
The second significant change that has affected the scope and priorities of the Dashnaktsutiun agenda has been the founding of the second free and independent Republic of Armenia. Consider that one of the reasons for the founding of the ARF in 1890 was the determination to alleviate the oppressive political and economic conditions under which Armenians lived in the towns and villages of Anatolia. Today, well over 100 years later, that compelling objective still exists. Why? Simply because the debilitating conditions that are slowly destroying our people and our country have been spawned by the ineffectiveness of all three administrations that have governed Armenia since its founding. They have allowed an oligarchic system that places personal power and wealth before the legitimate needs of their compatriots to become entrenched. If the nation’s vitality and future potential are to be realized, if the worker is to benefit properly from his labor, then the ARF must strive to institute a system of government based on the social democratic principles of freedom, equality, opportunity, and justice.
Our course was set some 120 years ago. The future of Armenia and Hai Tahd depends on the Dashnaktsutiun. That is a simple unembellished statement of fact. If not us, who? Everything that has gone on before has prepared the party for what must be accomplished today. Let us not look back a decade or two from now and lament the fact that we failed because we lacked the passion, or the dedication, or the selflessness that was the hallmark of our predecessors.
Michael Mensoian, J.D./Ph.D, is professor emeritus in Middle East and political geography at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a retired major in the U.S. Army.