On May 30, 1999, Armenia held its second parliamentary election since gaining independence. Twenty-one parties and blocs contested 56 seats set aside for party voting and over 700 individual candidates competed in 75 majoritarian races to fill the legislatures 131 seats. According to official results, turnout was almost 56 percent. The big winner in the election was the Unity bloc, an alliance of the Republican Party, headed by Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkissian, and the Peoples Party of Karen Demirchian, Armenias last Communist leader.
OSCE observation missions had criticized Armenias parliamentary and presidential elections in 1995, 1996 and 1998, so Yerevan had to hold better elections to restore its damaged reputation. The May 30 election was also supposed to formalize the shift of power in early 1998, when the governing partythe Armenian National Movement (ANM)collapsed as its leader, Levon Ter-Petrossyan, was forced out and Vazgen Sarkissian came openly to the fore.
Though Armenia’s May 30 election was a clear improvement over previous elections, concerns persist about overall political trends. Armenia is unique among former Soviet republics in that its president, despite broad constitutional prerogatives, is not the most powerful political actor. Vazgen Sarkissian, as Defense Minister, had already gained a remarkable hold on the military, the executive branch and even the legislature, while also heading a veterans organization that controls most local authorities. Such concentration of authority in the hands of one politician bodes ill for separation of powers and the development of civil society. Even more troubling, Sarkissians record does not inspire confidence in his commitment to democracy. He now has to overcome his reputation and manage his own transition to a democratic statesman.
Following the lead of the OSCE, the U.S. State Department noted the improvements over past elections but emphasized the need for further progress to bring Armenias elections up to OSCE standards and raise public trust in the process. With the OSCEs assessment having at least been better than in past elections, Yerevan can hope for the first official visit to Washington of President Kocharian this fall.