Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addresses his supporters on March 1

Pashinyan Agrees to Snap Elections


YEREVAN — Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced his readiness to hold snap elections on the evening of March 1.

Addressing a large crowd in the capital’s Republic Square at an event commemorating the March 1, 2008, shooting of 10 demonstrators by the army, Pashinyan discussed allegations by opposition groups that his previous suggestion for fresh elections were insincere.

“Since the opposition flatly rejected our proposals for snap elections, we concluded that holding one would be pointless without their approval,” Pashinyan said, adding that if parliamentary quorum could be assured, his party was ready to call a vote. The prime minister also reiterated that the only way to change the composition of the current government is through legal, free and fair elections. “You elected me, and only you can oust me,” Pashinyan shouted, as supporters chanted “Nikol, prime minister.”

Armenia’s current electoral code features a complex mechanism for dissolving the government. In order to trigger fresh elections, the prime minister would first need to submit his resignation in accordance with Article 149 of the Constitution at which point Parliament is given two attempts to nominate a replacement candidate before being dissolved and elections triggered. These elections must take place within a period of 30 to 45 days later. Any citizen of Armenia — not just sitting parliamentarians — is eligible for nomination provided that they are over 25 years of age, speak Armenian and reside in the country.

Given that only 67 parliamentary votes are required to confirm a replacement prime minister, the government has been seeking guarantees from the opposition that it would not nominate competing candidates in order to go to elections. On Monday, March 1, Edmon Marukyan, who heads the opposition Bright Armenia Faction, signaled his readiness to recuse himself from nomination and greenlight an election if the government agreed to reinstate General Onik Gasparyan.

Pashinyan promptly sacked Gasparyan after the latter called on  the government to resign — an act which the government considers to be illegal. The prime minister called Gasparyan’s call a “coup attempt.”

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Article 14 of the Armenian Constitution states that the armed forces must “maintain neutrality in political matters and shall be under civilian control.”

The Army’s statement likewise drew concern from the European Union whose spokesperson called for the crisis to be resolved “peacefully and in strict adherence to the principles and processes of parliamentary democracy.”

The decision to sack the Chief of the Army General Staff, and the president’s subsequent objection have pushed the ongoing political crisis towards a constitutional one. Several constitutional experts and civil society organizations have criticized the president for what they call a violation of Articles 133 and 155 of the Constitution.

Pashinyan reiterated his belief that the army’s statement was the result of pressure from former President Serzh Sargsyan. He once again insisted on Gasparyan’s removal, but said that no retributions would be directed towards the co-signatories. “Thank God that Gasparyan and the army have not yet crossed any red lines,” he said.

Opposition leader Vazgen Manukyan, for his part, praised the general, and reiterated calls for the army, police and national security forces to defy constitutional constraints and join their movement. “We have almost finished what we started,” Manukyan declared amidst calls of ‘traitor’ [referring to the Prime Minister].

Still, at the rally in downtown Yerevan, Pashinyan took a more conciliatory tone towards Sarkissian. “I hope that our President, given his years of experience and wisdom as a diplomat and politician, will take the best interest of the people into consideration in his decision” he told the crowd, wishing him a speedy recovery. President Sarkissian has remained in poor health since contracting COVID-19 while vacationing in London.

However, the next day, President Sarkissian announced his intention not to sign the order, but didn’t outright reject it. Under the current Constitution, the president has three days to confirm or reject an order from the National Assembly, failing to take action results in it automatically coming into force. The president did add that he would submit a separate application to the Constitutional Court to clarify the “legally problematic” wording on the matter.

Invoking the memory of the victims of the March 1, 2008 massacre, Pashinyan reiterated once more that “tanks cannot change governments, only the power of the people.” He also asked the people of Armenia, Artsakh and the diaspora to forgive his government for what he called “many mistakes” since taking office, as well as those of previous administrations, before leading a procession towards Myasnikyan Square.

At least three other demonstrations took place in the city in connection to the March 1st anniversary, all of which were equally peaceful and without incident. The Armenian National Congress — which had organized the original protests which ended in bloodshed in 2008 —held a church service before laying flowers near the site where most of the killings took place. Near the Matenadaran, another group of protesters, this time the nationalist supporters of the Sasna Tsrer militant group earlier marched under torch light. They blame the current authorities for losing the war but also accuse the previous government of decades of mismanagement and corruption.

Activists of the “Homeland Salvation Movement,” a coalition of 16 opposition parties, continued their sit-in in front of the National Assembly building. Supporters have set up tents on the blocked street in a scene reminiscent of the opposition camp which the authorities attacked on March 1st 2008. The coalition’s primary leaders — the Republican, Prosperous Armenia and Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) parties — formed the government at the time of that incident. Former Chief of the Army General Staff Yuri Khatchaturov and Former Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan were among the invited speakers. Both men are currently facing charges of toppling constitutional order for their involvement in the 2008 shooting incident.

At the rally, ARF Supreme Body member Ishkhan Saghatelyan reiterated his party’s demand that the prime minister resign immediately. “We will not leave this street until our demands are met” he told supporters. The Homeland Salvation Movement — of which the ARF is a member have repeatedly rejected proposals for snap elections organized under the current government over concerns that it would use administrative resources to skew the results. This in spite of the fact that the Armenian Electoral Code stipulates that the Central Election Committee — not the prime minister — is in charge of organizing the vote. They instead want to see power transferred to a “transitional government of technocrats” for a year. This concept has been rejected by both the ruling party and the opposition Bright Armenia party. The legality of such an arrangement has also been put in question by constitutional scholars.

Of the two parliamentary opposition forces, only the Bright Armenia Party has since accepted the prime minister’s request to fast-track snap elections. The Prosperous Armenia Party led by business tycoon Gagik Tsarukyan has yet to accept. Tsarukyan’s party is the only member of the 16-party opposition coalition to have parliamentary representation.

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