Democratization in the Caucasus: Elections in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia

Testimony Before the U.S. Helsinki Commission

CAP Adjunct Fellow Cory Welt testifies before the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Read the full testimony (CAP Action)

Thank you to the Helsinki Commission for convening this briefing. I appreciate the opportunity to join this distinguished group of panelists.

I want to first make some observations relevant to all three states, and will then address some issues specific to Armenia’s parliamentary elections earlier this month and Georgia’s upcoming parliamentary elections in October. I will conclude with a brief comment on Azerbaijan.

  • My first point is that, leaving out the earliest years of transition from Soviet power, elections in the Caucasus have yet to serve their basic democratic function of transferring power from one political party to another. Where an incumbent team has lost power—which really only happened in Georgia’s Rose Revolution—it did so outside a normal electoral process.
  • Second, in all three states, elections have still not produced a viable multiparty democratic system, in which opposition political parties have enough of a presence in parliament to serve as a check on authorities, or to realistically position themselves as governments-in-waiting. All three states still operate within the paradigm of a “party of power” rather than a modern democratic paradigm of parties that alternate power.
  • Third, problems with the electoral process, at this point, are less related to the mechanics of voting day—the casting, counting, and recording of ballots—than to the overwhelming power advantages with which authorities are able to control or at least greatly influence the country’s overall political climate, including campaign and election processes, legal and judicial contexts, and public expectations and opinion—in other words, the gamut of so-called “administrative resources,” the broad and frequently illegal use of government finances and officials for political purposes.
  • Fourth, governments in all three states have utilized particular electoral systems to shore up their rule. A long-running debate focuses on the benefits and drawbacks of proportional vs. majoritarian electoral systems for constructing multiparty democracy. In the Caucasus, the conclusion is clear: The more majoritarian seats there have been in parliament, the better it has been for the party in power. Particularly in Armenia and Georgia, mixed systems with a majoritarian component repeatedly lead to substantially greater ruling party representation in parliament than there would be in a strictly party-list system.

As a result of these considerations (and others), elections in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan have tended to reinforce—or at least not weaken—the power of those in power in ways that fall short of normal democratic practice.

CAP Adjunct Fellow Cory Welt testifies before the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Read the full testimony (CAP Action)