“I will line them up against the walls. They will be laid down on the asphalt of the main square in Avshar,” a village in Armenia’s Ararat province where acting Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan was holding an election rally. “I will personally do that to anyone acting against the people’s will,” he said this week.
“Let them lie down to learn how to stand up if that makes things easier for them,” he added.
Due to the ongoing political crisis in Armenia following the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, the parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2023 have been moved to this Sunday, 20 June 2021.
Four political alliances and 23 parties have submitted documents to the Armenian Electoral Commission to register for the elections. By 10 June, four alliances and 21 parties were scheduled to participate, several of them founded in 2021 following Armenia’s defeat in the war. The official election campaign period started on 7 June and continues until 18 June.
The race has seen a comeback by three of Armenia’s former presidents, two as candidates and one as a supporter. The first president of independent Armenia, Levon Ter Petrosyan (in power from 1991 to 1998), heads the Armenian National Congress Party (ANC). Armenia’s second president, Robert Kocharyan (1998-2008), who also served as the first president of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic from 1994 to 1997 and is Karabakh-born, leads the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Party (ARF) in the Armenia Alliance.
Serj Sargsyan, 67, who served as third president from 2008 to 2018, supports the I’m Honoured Alliance’s leader and candidate Artur Vanetsyan. Sargsyan, also Karabakh-born, was ousted by the Velvet Revolution that brought 46-year-old acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to power. Since then, Pashinyan is the leader of the My Step Alliance formed by the Civil Contract Party.
“There is an interesting but negative paradox in Armenian politics. Although there are 26 political parties and alliances competing in the elections, most are not true political parties in the classical sense,” director of the Regional Studies Centre (RSC), an independent think tank in Yerevan, Richard Giragosian told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“The overwhelming majority of these parties consist of artificial structures created by strong personalities and not traditional parties or political groups united by ideology or any coherent policy platform. In the 2018 elections, there were significantly fewer groups, with only 11 parties or alliances running.”
During his campaign rallies, Pashinyan has made sure to gather enough supporters around him to avoid any surprises, including chants like “Pashinyan traitor,” which since the war between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia ended have become common. Pashinyan has a significant number of supporters, although the parliament rejected his candidacy last month.
Giragosian said the contest was about personalities more than policy alternatives. “This polarisation and fragmentation means that most of the parties will not be able to pass the threshold to win seats in the new parliament. It is this that gives a further advantage to the incumbent Pashinyan government,” he told the Weekly.
During one of his campaign rallies, Pashinyan held a hammer while giving a speech, waving it in a threatening way. “I see the non-violent and popular revolution of steel gaining momentum every day in Armenia. We will show everyone their worth with a mandate of steel. We will be coming for you after the elections with this steel mandate,” he said.
“As demonstrated by his vicious and vindictive political discourse, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has exceeded all normal limits and surpassed all natural expectations by his impulsive and reckless rhetoric invoking threats and aggressive speeches,” Giragosian said.
Armenia has been in a political crisis since Pashinyan signed a Russian-brokered ceasefire in November last year, described as “shameful,” to end the war with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian enclave. He was widely held responsible for Armenia’s defeat in the war.
Pashinyan’s main opponent, Robert Kocharyan, 66, is confident of the possibility of the return of the village of Hadrut to Armenia through negotiations, “but not so confident about the return of Shushi,” he said during a rally in Dilijan.
Hadrut is one of the Karabakh villages destroyed by Azerbaijan, including the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage. The village was taken under Azeri control after the war ended.
Giragosian said that the return of Kocharyan to power would also be a threat to democracy and reform in Armenia.
“Although the former president needed a political vehicle of his own, his ARF Dashnak partners are actually a drain on his position and do not offer him support. As they secured a mere 3.9 per cent of the vote in the 2018 elections, Kocharyan is saving them from oblivion and political irrelevance,” he thinks.
“But as strong a threat as Kocharyan and his team may seem, their prospects are not good. Kocharyan is not only divisive, dangerous and destructive, but he has also never won a free-and-fair election on his own. He came to power by force, and many voters would prefer to see him remain as he is now: a former, and never a future, president.”
Schoolchildren across the country have been brought to Pashinyan’s rallies. The 168.am local news agency interviewed the principal of one school whose pupils had been obliged to attend. She refused to look at the camera while answering questions, only saying that the “children wished to accompany us. As soon as the gathering ends, they will go back to their classrooms.”
She also refused to accept that the gathering was a political rally, even when the interviewer pointed out that “as long as Pashinyan is around, it is his campaign rally.”
A 10 June opinion poll released by Gallup has showed that the Armenia Alliance (Kocharyan and the ARF Party) is in the lead in the campaigns, with 24.1 per cent of the vote against Pashinyan’s Civil Contract at 23.8 per cent.
Meanwhile, there are still some 200 Armenian POWs in Azerbaijan. Last week, the Azeris released 15 of them in exchange for minefield maps provided by Armenia. The parties involved in the process included Georgia, the US, the EU Council and the Swedish chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
It is said that Pashinyan chose this timing of the deal to boost his position in the coming elections, with many asking why he did not negotiate the release of a larger number of POWs.
Pashinyan’s victory in the upcoming elections would be the best option for Azerbaijan to achieve its objectives, as he signed the humiliating agreement that ended the war between the two countries in November and is capable of dealing with the Azeri leaders in Baku.
A Kocharyan victory could jeopardise Azeri plans and renew military operations between the two countries.
“Although the coming elections are widely expected to repeat the 2018 achievement of a truly free-and-fair contest, the political discourse of personal hatred and anger undermines democracy in Armenia. But although the post-war politics remain poisonous and polarised, these elections do offer a way to overcome the political stalemate and will provide a rare degree of legitimacy to whoever wins,” Giragosian said.
He believes the campaign rallies are based on a confrontation of personalities rather than any real competition of policies. “Like the opening rounds in the campaigns, the elections are also likely to remain defined by such distressing and destructive discourse, with a poverty of ideas,” he concluded.
Voting around the country starts at 8 am on Sunday and ends at 8 pm the same evening.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly