Ruling Party Sweeps Armenian Elections as Power Shift Looms

(Bloomberg) -- Armenia’s ruling Republican Party swept to victory in parliamentary elections that international observers said were marred by fraud. The results may allow President Serzh Sargsyan to retain power as premier after he steps down.

Sargsyan’s Republicans won 49.2 percent in Sunday’s elections, well ahead of an alliance headed by a flamboyant local oligarch, Gagik Tsarukyan, which got 27.3 percent, according to preliminary results released by the central election commission on Monday. The Yelk, or Way Out, opposition alliance with 7.8 percent and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, with 6.6 percent, were the only others to pass the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament. Turnout was 61 percent.

“The elections were tainted by credible information about vote-buying, and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies” to support the Republicans, despite new safeguards against fraud, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded in a statement Monday. “This contributed to an overall lack of public confidence and trust in the elections.”

The results are particularly important for the Caucasus republic of 3 million people because it’s switching from a mainly presidential system to one in which power will rest with the governing majority in parliament. The changes, approved in a December 2015 referendum, take effect once Sargsyan’s second and final term ends in March next year, and the vote means that the president’s party will retain its grip on the legislature. Critics allege that Sargsyan’s preparing to continue to rule as premier after he steps down. He hasn’t said that’s his intention, though he hasn’t ruled it out.

‘Deep Discontent’

The Republicans are likely to have 58 of 105 seats in the new parliament, with 30 going to Tsarukyan’s bloc, nine to Yelk and eight to the ARF, said Hrant Tovmasyan, chief of staff in the legislature, according to the news website. The number of seats in the parliament can vary from a minimum of 101 under a complicated system of proportional representation introduced at these elections.

Armenia’s “transformation to a full parliamentary system raises fresh concern” against a “backdrop of deep discontent, economic crisis and the looming threat of renewed hostilities” with neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center, a think tank in the capital, Yerevan, wrote on Facebook.

The elections took place a year after more than 200 were killed during a four-day war between Armenians and Azeris over Nagorno-Karabakh, the worst fighting since a 1994 cease-fire in the unresolved conflict.

Armenia’s economy grew just 0.2 percent in 2016 compared to a year earlier, its smallest gain since 2009, according to the National Statistics Service. The impoverished former Soviet republic, which is a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, needs “profound change” to tackle corruption and speed growth, Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan said in a November interview.

The Republicans said before the vote that they’ll nominate Karapetyan, a former executive of Russia’s Gazprom PJSC appointed by Sargsyan in September, to continue in office if the party wins the elections.