The collapse of the Armenian government brought was one of the few bright spots in global democracy in 2018. A series of protests including civil disobedience became a self-proclaimed “Velvet Revolution” because it brought about a peaceful transfer of power. Indeed, the ruling Republican Party fell below the necessary five percent necessary for representation in Parliament.
Nonetheless, the transition to liberal democracy is complex and depends on the participation of multiple stakeholders to take root. The success of the My Step Alliance may prove to become the greatest obstacle to democratization moving forward. Because it holds 70 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, it holds the cards for political transformation. They have the votes to bring about dramatic constitutional reform. This will either become the foundation of liberal democracy or a recipe for a new party to abuse power. The Hungarian slide into illiberal democracy began with a parliamentary supermajority for Fidesz. Viktor Orbán had a previous unremarkable term as Prime Minister. The difference was not the leader, but the lack of institutional checks on his power.
The absence of free and fair elections gives incumbents a permanent hold on power. In the rare instance where power is transferred, the incumbents control its transition. They avoid parties who pose an existential threat, instead they rig elections to favor malleable politicians who refuse to crack down on their past misdeeds. Incumbents who rig elections are not sympathetic figures. Yet their villainy may give their opponents undeserved legitimacy.
Maduro’s Presidency in Venezuela has been challenged by Juan Guiado. Venezuela faces a twin crisis of democracy and quality governance. I am not among those who assume democracy leads to quality governance. Indeed, this is a common campaign issue in many elections. Parties will campaign on their ability to govern rather than the actual plans for governance. The record in Venezuela is beyond poor. It is unimaginable to believe Maduro would win reelection. Indeed, there is broad international support for him to step down.
But a rejection of Maduro does not require the coronation of Guiado. The absence of free and fair elections changes the political calculus. It is unclear whether Juan Guiado would have amassed popular support in a democratic Venezuela. Now he represents opposition to Maduro. Yet his position is built on resistance to an unpopular dictator rather than his own charisma or agenda. His support has already begun to erode as Maduro has resisted efforts to step down from power.
Nikol Pashinyan faces many of the same challenges as Guiado. It is unlikely his party would have won such a landslide victory before the popular protests began in April. It is equally unlikely the Republican Party would have fallen below the necessary five percent threshold without this dramatic fall from power. Do the recent Parliamentary elections represent the will of the people or the ecstasy of the moment? Will Pashinyan work to consolidate power to accomplish his political goals? Will a new leader emerge to challenge Pashinyan as the Armenian political system liberalizes?
Large legislative majorities in democracies bother me. It is much easier to incorporate the perspectives and opinions of political minorities when they have representation. It is far more difficult to represent the different social interests when they rely on freedom of expression and the good will of the parties in power. Paul Chaisty, Nic Cheeseman and Timothy Power wrote a remarkable book last year on Coalitional Presidentialism. It challenges Linz’s Perils of Presidentialism thesis and shows how governments can remain effective on the basis of compromise and coalitions. Armenia’s new government will need neither. And this may represent the next challenge for democracy.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com