Three countries go to the polls on Sunday, so here’s a quick rundown on the basics of each.
Parliamentary elections in Armenia will be the first test of the country’s new constitution, adopted at the end of 2015, which is supposed to move the country from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary one. Critics have suggested that this is a ploy by president Serzh Sargsyan to retain power after the expiry of his second term in a year’s time.
Nonetheless, we have seen plenty of examples recently of the problems with presidential regimes, and a similar move to parliamentary government in neighboring Georgia has been a definite success. Armenia’s democratic institutions are shaky, but there is a functioning opposition, partly driven by rivalry between Sargsyan and his authoritarian predecessor, Robert Kocharyan. Freedom House comments that “the ruling party’s dominance and control of administrative resources prevents a level playing field.” Corruption and cronyism are rife.
To be fair, government in Armenia is a difficult balancing act at the best of times, with the competing demands of alliance with Russia, good relations with the European Union (which Armenia has ideas of one day joining, despite being on the wrong side of the Caucusus) and cold war with Azerbaijan. Add the ongoing conflicts in Syria and eastern Ukraine and creeping authoritarianism in Turkey, and the region seems to be getting more rather than less perilous.
Voting is nationwide D’Hondt proportional representation with a 5% threshold (or 7% for multi-party alliances); four seats are reserved for ethnic minorities. If no stable majority can be formed, a second round of voting can be held with bonus seats awarded to bring the winning party or alliance up to 54% of the seats. In an interesting refinement, bonus seats can also be awarded to the opposition if the government would otherwise have more than a two-thirds majority.
Opinion polling is not a highly developed art in Armenia, but the election is expected to be mostly a contest between the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, which held 69 seats in the old parliament, and the Prosperous Armenia alliance (37 seats), led by oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan but allegedly masterminded by Kocharyan. Other players include the liberal Armenian National Congress, the centrist Armenian Renaissance (formerly known as Rule of Law), and the more left-wing Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which (somewhat surprisingly) has served as a junior partner in government.
While Armenia is moving away from presidentialism, Serbia could be going in the other direction. A presidential election will be held on Sunday, with incumbent prime minister Aleksandar Vucic the overwhelming favorite. A second round will be held a fortnight later if he fails to reach 50%, but if the polls are right then this is unlikely.
Although the post is in theory ceremonial, critics fear – probably with good reason – that Vucic will use it to concentrate more power in his own hands. Incumbent Tomislav Nikolic, also from Vucic’s party, has chosen not to seek a second term.
Vucic was first elected in 2014 and comfortably returned in an early election in April last year. In office he has confirmed Serbia in its European orientation (although progress towards EU membership remains slow) and has been, considering his country’s geographical position, a surprisingly moderate voice on the refugee crisis. But a good record in government is no guarantee against the corruption of excessive power.
Other leaders in the region, notably Robert Fico in Slovakia and Victor Ponta in Romania, have tried and failed to switch to the presidency, but polls show Vucic winning more than 50% of the vote against ten opponents. Former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, liberal former foreign minister Vuk Jeremik and Vojislav Seselj on the extreme right seem to be his main rivals.
Finally Ecuador, which holds the second round of voting in its presidential election – you can read my report on the first round here. A tight race is expected between leftist Lenín Moreno, from the incumbent PAIS Alliance, and centre-right challenger Guillermo Lasso.
Moreno fell just short of the required 40% in the first round, where he led Lasso by 11.3%, but things will be closer this time because the third placegetter, Cynthia Viteri of the Social Christian Party (who had 16.3%), has endorsed Lasso. Opinion polls have been erratic (this is another place where people may be reluctant to talk politics with a stranger with a clipboard), but the majority show Moreno in the lead, with margins ranging from narrow to comfortable.
Ecuador’s system is fully presidential on the US model, and whatever happens Moreno’s party will retain a majority in the legislature. But a soft coup this week in neighboring Venezuela, where a tame supreme court has effectively outlawed the oppostion-controlled legislature, has dramatically illustrated the problems such systems can run into.
Although Ecuador’s Rafael Correa has been a good deal more moderate than Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro (and Moreno has positioned himself even more to the centre), the example is probably the last thing that Moreno needs. Although he remains the favorite, it’s not impossible that Ecuador’s voters will conclude that it’s time for the left to take a turn in opposition.