Armenia’s Elections: A Mandate For a Peaceful New Future?
Visiting a Yerevan polling station to cast his vote on June 20, 2021 a nervous Pashinyan ponders his possible futures. Image: Lusi Sargsyan/Photolure via REUTERS
With preliminary results now in, Armenia’s incumbent Nikol Pashinyan appears to have won the June 20, 2021 snap Parliamentary Elections with around 54% of the votes cast. As election day approached, opinion polls had reported the race as being neck and neck, a situation described by pundits as a ‘stunning reversal’ in fortunes for reformist prime minister Pashinyan who, just three years before, had seen a fairytale rise to power. In the end, reports of Pashinyan’s possible demise proved to be seriously overstated. Pollsters had been more accurate in predicting a high turnout. For the numerous undecided voters, it appears that Pashinyan’s message of ‘moving on’ struck more of a chord than that of politicians still trumpeting the essentially impractical goal of somehow regaining the territories that Armenia had occupied before the Second Karabakh War of 2020. It was that war that had forced the Pashinyan government to go to the polls in this week’s snap election. Unambiguous military defeat meant that Armenia had been required to return Azerbaijan a large swathe of territory whose occupation they had essentially taken for granted over the last three decades. While that was great news for jubilant Azerbaijani IDPs who now anticipate returning to their homes, the conflict caused a wave of dissatisfaction amongst Armenians. Thousands of protesters hit the streets questioning Pashinyan’s November 10 decision to sign a ceasefire agreement with Azerbaijan.
The Background to Pashinyan’s Leadership
A prominent journalist until a few years ago, Nikol Pashinyan had been at the forefront of Armenia’s anti-corruption 'Velvet Revolution'. His “My Step” protest march left Armenia’s second city, Gyumri, on March 31, 2018, and by the time it arrived in Yerevan two weeks later, its ranks had swollen to many thousands. The focus of their anger was then-president Serzh Sargsyan, whose second presidential term was ending. Rather than leave office as a two-term president was supposed to, Sargsyan had been voted into a newly beefed-up role of prime minister by parliament. This was political sleight of hand, the creation of the new prime ministerial post having been rubber-stamped through a 2015 referendum that the BBC suggested was "marred by widespread irregularities." Within ten days of the protests reaching Yerevan, Sargsyan resigned, leading to elections in which Pashinyan’s party, the “My Step Alliance,” won a remarkable 70.44% of the total vote. A summer 2018 poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI) reported that Pashinyan was viewed favourably by 91% of respondents, popular support bolstered by his ‘man of the people’ image.
Soon after being appointed prime minister, Pashinyan started high-profile investigations against former senior officials, most notably the pre-Sargsyan ex-president Robert Kocharyan (in power 1998-2008) and other former high-ranking officials, including ex-defence minister Seyran Ohanyan, ex-minister for nature conservation Aram Harutyunyan, and General Manvel Grigoryan. The latter had been accused of stealing money meant for soldiers’ rations, using it instead to pay – amongst other things – for his private zoo. But Kocharyan’s trial was the highest-profile. When that was initially suspended in May 2019, Pashinyan also suggested that corruption in the judiciary system was one of Armenia’s pressing challenges. A system for vetting judges was needed.
Pashinyan’s warpath against corruption was also accompanied by a noticeable economic uptick as his promises to develop the economy seemed to take rapid effect. In 2019 Armenia experienced 7.6% GDP growth, the largest since 2007, outpacing Georgia (5.0%) and Azerbaijan (2.2%).
But then came 2020 - Covid, the disastrous war. Many Armenians saw the deal which ended the war as a humiliating capitulation, and thousands of people hit the streets of Yerevan demanding Pashinyan’s resignation. The Prime Minister explained that he’d signed the deal to avoid even greater losses: Azerbaijan had established complete aerial superiority and had already taken Shusha, which commands the heights above the city of Khankendi (Stepanakert to Armenians). Without a cessation of the war, most observers felt, it was likely that the Azerbaijani army would imminently attack that city, the ‘capital’ of the self-declared if never-recognized “Nagorno Karabakh Republic.” Despite this explanation of a very realistic threat, Pashinyan was characterized by his opponents as a “traitor” and his signing of the ceasefire agreement “a capitulation.” Demonstrations continued for several months after the end of the war. Eventually, Pashinyan decided to call a snap parliamentary election to clarify the situation and gauge whether his support was still sufficiently strong to give him a continuing mandate to govern. In April 2021, he formally stepped down, albeit continuing to lead Armenia as acting prime minister until the results of the June 20 poll.
As we reported previously, heading into the election, there was a bewildering array of parties and platforms. However, to gain representation, any party/coalition is required to poll above a minimum threshold of 5 and 7 percent, respectively. So, while Pashinyan’s core supporters organized themselves within the Civil Contract party, many groupings of an informal anti-Pashinyan movement coalesced into two discrete branches. The pro-European “National Democratic Pole (NDP)” was initially formed before the war to contest the Pashinyan government’s Covid response. The pro-Russian “Homeland Salvation Movement (HSM)” was assembled post-war in December 2020, initially including nearly 20 smaller parties, though several later broke away. Both claim to share the nominal if unrealistic aim of independence for Nagorno Karabakh.
Though led by Vazgen Manukyan, who had been prime minister of Armenia during the 1991 transition from Soviet republic to independent state, one of HSM’s key early supporters was none other than Armenia’s second president Robert Kocharyan. He was still on trial over his violent attempts to prevent his fall from power in 2008. However, after that legal case was dismissed on a constitutional technicality in April, Kocharyan broke away from HSM and cranked up a political movement of his own. A divisive but influential figure considered a “steady hand” by his supporters, Kocharyan reiterated his staunch pro-Moscow agenda on state-owned Russian TV. Backed by slickly emotional TV ads that were more anti-Pashinyan than pro-ideas, Kocharyan’s Armenia Alliance (aka Hayastan Bloc) rapidly appeared as a front runner amongst the anti-Pashinyan groups. As voting approached, opinion polls suggested that Pashinyan’s grouping was 22.4%, with Kocharyan’s Armenia Alliance at 20.6% and possibly closing the gap. However, a very high percentage of voters claimed to be ‘undecided’ with a higher turnout anticipated than in 2018, leaving the result very unpredictable down to the wire.
Early on June 21, Pashinyan tweeted preliminary results giving his party at least 71 of the 105 deputies in a new parliament and thus an outright majority. Not unpredictably, some voices in the losing opposition movements, including Kocharyan’s, have suggested irregularities in Pashinyan’s claims. Western media – including France 24 TV, which tends to take a close interest in Armenian affairs – suggested that any violations that did occur were probably too minor to be of any great consequence. Indeed, as in 2018, the election seems to have been unusual by Armenian standards for its relative openness, with 8 international and 19 local organizations carefully monitoring the polling. Thomas de Waal, an author and analyst on the Caucasus region, went further, crediting Armenia for "what looks like a fair and well-run election." He pointed out that voters were not convinced by Kocharyan’s retrogressive attitudes and scare tactics and noted that Russia had decided to "sit out" the election knowing that the November 2020 agreement gives any Armenian government few real geopolitical tools with respect to Karabakh. On June 21, the Kremlin sent a blandly congratulatory statement noting Pashinyan’s "convincing victory." Azerbaijan also remained relatively low-key about the Armenian elections. But it seems likely that Baku sees a Pashinyan victory as offering a better chance of solidifying the post-war status quo than a Kocharyan government would have done. Each nudge of events towards a more stable peace in the Caucasus should be seen as positive news for all sides.