What Armenia can learn from Austrian political society
Talking about modern Austrian history, is talking about the history of a longstanding party system. A party system, previously dominated by the conservative ÖVP, the social democratic SPÖ and partly the right-wing populist FPÖ. Later, two more parties were established and belong to the core of Austrian party system – namely the liberal NEOS and the Greens. In other words, one could say, that the whole political spectrum is covered and the interests of almost all Austrian citizens are somehow aggregated through the different parties.
Balancing and aggregating interests
But, why do we need parties and what is their main function within a society? First, parties should aggregate interests of citizens. Second, they should provide different ideologies, solutions for a spectrum of problems. And third, people should be able to choose a certain way of policy making, a set of solutions through political parties. Sure, parties are not perfect and not every party is willing to fulfil the societal functions. Moreover, we know that elections become more personified, identifying with a party becomes less important. People often elect a person due to his/her personal characteristics, even because of charisma. Nevertheless, every Austrian party has a core electorate – people, who are identifying themselves with the party and a wider range of sympathizers. Austrian parties, many western European parties, are also linked to specific political fields and topics. For instance, the social democrats are connected with labour issues, while conservatives and liberals are known for economic issues.
The specific party profile, political affiliation allows the Austrian society to balance and pluralize the political society.
The specific party profile, political affiliation allows the Austrian society to balance and pluralize the political society. While until 80s, both social democrats and conservatives shared about 90% of all votes, the political society nowadays is more diversified. The short era of majority one-party governments was replaced by coalition governments. Of course, it is debatable if one-party or coalition governments are better and more efficient. I would argue that coalition governments and political diversification in general is one of the main factors, why many western European states could improve both – in terms of economy, a welfare state and a balanced social policy. Therefore, we could argue, that political pluralism with a set of parties based on various ideologies is better in terms of a more balanced society and policy and the aggregation of interests.
Emerging democracies: The lack of ideological diversification in Armenia
On the contrary, we can see the opposite situation in emerging, new democracies – especially in some post-Soviet, post-Yugoslav or eastern European states. While in some semi-authoritarian/semi-democratic states populist parties try to hold the power, in other states catch-all anti-corruption parties try to overcome the old governments. First, as a strategy it is quite understandable, that catch-all anti-corruption parties are more likely to overcome old authorities than some niche parties.
In most of these cases, people elected a certain party due to the leader or as a symbol of opposition against another party.
Nevertheless, in the second step a diversification of political spectrum will eventually take place. Jumping to the Armenian case, the political spectrum before the Velvet Revolution in 2018 consisted of some old traditional parties like Dashnaks and some newer parties established in the 90s and later on in the 2000s. Although all of those parties considered themselves as conservative, liberal or socialist, they never had a longstanding political system based on a political ideology. Most of the parties identified themselves by several persons. In most of these cases, people elected a certain party due to the leader or as a symbol of opposition against another party. Talking about the pre-revolutionary party spectrum, we should take into account, that the pre-revolutionary elections were often criticized not being free and fair. Looking at the post-revolutionary party spectrum, we can observe more free and fair conditions, but also a lack of political diversification and – what is more important – the lack of political parties based on a political ideology, no matter if conservatives, liberals, social democrats or greens. Most of Armenian parties are strongly linked to a person – Nikol Pashinyan, Edmon Marukyan, Gagik Tsarukyan, Serj Sargsyan, Raffi Hovannisian. The difference of most of these parties with the European system is, that a longstanding European – let’s say conservative – party would not fall apart after a party-leader-change, at least it is not a catch-all or populist party. On the other side, the party Prosperous Armenia is not imaginable without the businessman Gagik Tsarukyan, the MyStep alliance is tailored to Nikol Pashinyan and the only prominent candidate of the Heritage-party is Raffi Hovannisian. The former ruling Republican party – dominated by Serj Sargsyan – was widely considered as corrupt and lost about 44% after the first election, which was classified as fair and free by organizations (OSCE, EU, UNO), indices and leading agencies.
Pluralisation inevitable: Cleavages and heterogeneous interests
It is more than understandable, that a catch-all anti-corruption movement-like party was needed to overcome the old authorities. And it is also understandable, that the mentioned movement-like party alliance (“MyStep”) gained a huge share of votes. On the other side, the party system in Armenia will diversify in the following years. Not because a certain party is doing a good or bad job, but due to different interests within a society. Catch-all parties or those parties, only being elected because of the party leader, will not be able to provide a program, which aggregates the interests of all citizens. All of these parties will face a process of party-specification, some of them will shrink, others will improve, but all of them will gain a core electorate – not only based on persons – but also on programs and ideologies. Undoubtedly, I am not claiming, that in western European states parties are only elected based on a political program. Not at all, but all of them have a core-electorate, all of them can provide certain programs and all of them are able to balance the political society.
The debate around the Istanbul Convention is a good example in terms of cleavages or political pluralism.
Moreover, due to the long history of party systems in many western European countries, party organizations – youth organizations in particular – form and develop the society in terms of a politically interested young generation. The situation in Armenia will last for a while due to the short modern history, elder societal structure, the need of stability and the conflict with the neighbouring Azerbaijan. However, Armenia can learn from Austrian and European political diversification and ideological, but pragmatic parties. Nevertheless, I believe there are good preconditions for such a development in Armenia. The day may come, when a certain party will not only be linked to a person or corruption, anti-corruption, but to specific political fields and competencies. The Armenian society – as any other society – is divided through different cleavages. Younger and older generations on the one side, socially conservatives or liberals, economically leftists or rightest, pro-Americanists, pro-Russians or pro-Europeans on the other side. The debate around the Istanbul Convention is a good example in terms of cleavages or political pluralism.
The purpose of the article is not to offend the electorate of a specific movement or party. Moreover, I think that the current situation is a natural development that we can see in many new democracies. Armenia has improved by almost all democracy- and speech related fields. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day. But, nevertheless an ideological pluralisation is inevitable, will take place and could benefit the political society.