Opinion: Armenia's June elections may lead to further uncertainty and instability

Sunday's parliamentary elections in Armenia are hotly contested, and the electorate is actively engaged in the campaigning. But the election is likely to lead to further uncertainty and continued instability argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed for KarabakhSpace.eu.

The official campaign for the 20 June 2021, early parliamentary elections in Armenia started on 7 June 2021. Twenty-five political entities are contesting the elections – 21 parties and four alliances (blocs). No election in the modern history of Armenia has seen such quantity and diversity of contenders. However, despite this impressive number, only a few participants have a real chance to overcome the threshold to enter Parliament – 5 percent for parties and 7 percent for alliances.

This is the second early parliamentary elections in Armenia in a row. The previous one was held in December 2018, seven months after the "Velvet Revolution," which brought journalist-turned-politician Nikol Pashinyan to power. Pashinyan enjoyed limitless power in Armenia from January 2019 to September 2020. He fully controlled the executive and legislative branches of government as the "My step" alliance had a constitutional majority in the Parliament. Even the messed-up response of the government to the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in April–June 2020 and the steep economic decline did not seriously damage Pashinyan’s reputation.

His honeymoon in power abruptly ended on 27 September 2020, when Azerbaijan launched a large-scale military operation against the unrecognised Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) Republic. The outcome of the war was truly catastrophic for Armenians. Artsakh lost control over 8500 square km of territories, including approximately thirty percent of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region. Up to 5000 Armenian soldiers were killed, more than 10000 were wounded, and many are still counted as missing. The victorious Artsakh war in the early 1990s was the cornerstone of Armenian post-Soviet identity, and the defeat in 2020 made many Armenians feel that the last 30 years of their life were now meaningless. The resentment against Pashinyan derives not only from the war's outcome but from the non-stop state propaganda campaign during the 44 days of the hostilities. It told the population about the Armenian army's victorious military operations and horrible stories of thousands of killed Azerbaijani soldiers. All this fantasy storytelling ended on the early morning of 10 November 2020, when Pashinyan signed a tripartite statement with his Russian and Azerbaijani counterparts.

The last seven months were marked in Armenia by multiple crises – political, economic, psychological, etc. The main opposition parties established a "Motherland Salvation Committee" demanding Pashinyan's resignation and the formation of an interim national unity government. However, Pashinyan succeeded in repelling immediate attacks mainly using his control over the army and the law enforcement bodies. Pashinyan spent the first week after signing the 10 November statement in the bunker of the Ministry of Defence while angry people stormed the government and parliament buildings. Several months later, the General Staff of the Armed forces demanded his resignation, but the momentum had gone and Pashinyan, after a month of political manoeuvering, managed to replace the Chief of the General Staff. However, it was evident that early parliamentary elections were unavoidable, and in mid-March 2021, Pashinyan declared the decision to hold  parliamentary elections on 20 June 2021.

The main opponent of Pashinyan in these elections is the second President of Armenia, Robert Kocharyan. Kocharyan governed in 1998-2008 and left a mixed legacy. He stabilised the economy after the chaotic 1990s and registered a double-digit GDP growth in 2001-2007. The main driver of the economic growth was construction, and there was an apparent lack of diversification. In his foreign policy, Kocharyan deepened strategic relations with Russia while developing a partnership with the Euro-Atlantic institutions. Armenia signed its first IPAP with NATO in 2005, Armenian peacekeepers were deployed in Iraq and Kosovo, and the US government-funded Millennium Challenge Corporation signed a 235.6 million USD agreement with the Armenian government to reduce rural poverty in March 2006. Kocharyan's rule was also marked by election fraud – including during the 2003, 2008 presidential, and 2003 and 2007 parliamentary elections – and a growing nexus between business and state apparatus. However, the major stains on Kocharyan’s rule were the assassination of the Prime Minister, Parliament Speaker, and other officials on 27 October 1999, and the violent clashes between protestors and police on 1 March 2008, which left ten people dead.

The current campaign is characterised by a high level of polarisation and mutual insults. Kocharyan and other opponents of Pashinyan openly call him a traitor and use the derogatory term "capitulator" while mentioning him. The key message of Pashinyan is his promise to implement a "Steel revolution” in Armenia in 2021. He promises that if re-elected he will replace the “velvet” approach with the “steel” approach. He promises to launch cruel civic revenge and political vendetta against all former and current officials, businessmen, and representatives of elites who had robbed the country for the last 30 years and somehow managed to avoid punishment after the 2018 “Velvet Revolution."

Kocharyan promises to establish a "dignified peace", though this concept lacks clarity. He argues that Artsakh may regain the territories of the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region – the entire Hadrut region, some villages of Martakert and Askeran regions, and the city Shushi – through negotiations, albeit unclear which state, why, and how will force Azerbaijan to do that. In domestic issues, Kocharyan's main trump card is his promise to repeat the impressive economic growth of 2001–2007.

In recent days both Pashinyan and Kocharyan organised large rallies in different regions of Armenia. Despite the post traumatic shock after the defeat in the 2020 war, society has started to be actively involved in campaign. Traditional as well as social media, are full of debates and discussions supporting Pashinyan or Kocharyan. Most probably more than 50 percent of voters will participate in the upcoming elections.    

Pashinyan enjoys strong support in rural areas, where his rating is above 50 and sometimes even 60 percent. In the small towns with a population of up to 20000 people, he is still leading, albeit with less percentage. The picture is different in the big cities and, especially in the capital. Approximately 40 percent of Armenia's population lives in Yerevan, and here, Kocharyan and Pashinyan enjoy almost equal popularity. Pashinyan's primary goal is to secure 50 percent plus one majority and form a one-party government, but it is a challenging task to realise. Another option for him is to form a coalition government. However, in recent days, all key players – except the pro-Western 'Republic" party led by the brother of a former prime minister's who was killed in the attack on the Armenian Parliament in October 1999 – publicly rejected the possibility of forming a coalition with Pashinyan's "Civic Contract" party.

Kocharyan understands that he can not win 50 percent plus one vote, but he hopes to form a broad coalition uniting all against Pashinyan based on the "Consensus minus one" notion. Meanwhile, Kocharyan stated that he would launch a street protest campaign if Pashinyan attempts to rig elections. We may assume that if Central Electoral Commission declares Pashinyan's decisive victory with more than 50 percent of votes, Kocharyan will reject the results. This scenario may bring Armenia close to large-scale street protests with potential clashes between protestors and riot police.  

Every possible outcome of the elections appears to lead to more uncertainty, and does not guarantee domestic stability. This while Armenia faces an emboldened Azerbaijan, whose troops encroached into Armenian territory on May 12-13, and are still there. Thus, the situation may worsen in Armenia after the elections before starting to get better.   


source: This op-ed was prepared for KarabakhSpace.eu by Benyamin Poghosyan, Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
photo: The Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, campaigning ahead of the 20 June parliamentary elections; Facebook: Nikol Pashinyan


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