Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan

Pashinyan Resigns to Trigger Early Snap Elections

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YEREVAN — Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government officially submitted its resignation on Sunday, April 25. The resignation, which was formally accepted by President Armen Sarkissian is the first step in triggering the process to hold snap parliamentary elections by June 20, in accordance with a deal struck between political forces back in March.

With Pashinyan’s resignation triggering Article 149 of the Armenian Constitution, parliament is given two opportunities within a 14-day period to vote on a replacement prime minister. As part of the deal, parliamentary opposition parties Bright Armenia and Prosperous Armenia have both agreed to withhold nominating their own candidates as part of the complex set of loops that parliament must go through before a general election could be called. This election is expected to take place within 30 to 45 days.

The administration chose the date of his government’s resignation — April 25 — to coincide with the third anniversary of former President Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation in the wake of peaceful mass protests which first swept Pashinyan to power in 2018. The event has since been commemorated with a new holiday, “Citizens’ Day” held on the closest Sunday.

 “This is emblematic in a sense that in this way we are returning to the citizens the authority received from the citizens of the Republic of Armenia, so that they could elect a government through free, fair and competitive elections,” Pashinyan explained about the date chosen.

Pashinyan is expected to remain interim prime minister until the elections are held in June. This decision did not pass without controversy, however. Opposition parties connected to the former regime criticized the decision as being unconstitutional. Armenia’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, also voiced concerns about the viability of free elections if Pashinyan retained his seat. 

These concerns were rebuked by parliamentary opposition leader Edmon Marukyan, pointing to Article 158 of the Constitution, which states that government officials (including the prime minister) are allowed to remain in office in the interim. “Those who wrote the law are now complaining that the government does whatever it wants.” Marukyan hit back, “Pashinyan already set a precedent in 2018 when he remained interim prime minister after resigning; no-one complained back then.”

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According to most polls conducted since January, Pashinyan remains the front-runner, despite being widely accused of losing last fall’s war. The prime minister’s prospects are bolstered by a lack of a third force between him and a widely discredited opposition, as well as positive economic figures in recent weeks. Former President Robert Kocharyan, who accuses Pashinyan of  mishandling the negotiation process with Azerbaijan, comes in at a distant second – due in part to the widespread anger among society for his role in the March 1, 2008 massacre. He is widely expected to announce an electoral alliance with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) which has reversed its previous position against the elections. Despite the challenge, Pashinyan is widely expected to retain his seat, either with a reduced majority or with support from a coalition partner, but voter apathy remains widespread.

Still, the prime minister has sparked some concern among those hoping for a free and fair electoral atmosphere over the past several weeks. Pashinyan’s recent visits to villages in Ararat Marz, and in Syunik have been criticized as examples of stealth campaigning by opposition groups and civil rights watchdogs alike. Prominent pro-democracy activist Daniel Ioannisyan, who heads the Union Informed Citizens characterized the trips as “blatant abuse of administrative resources.” He explained that by virtue of his office, the prime minister’s discussing future policies and elections with potential voters gives him a clear upper-hand against opposition parties. Pashinyan’s supporters have characterized the trips as part of an ongoing series of visits he has undertaken as part of his duties as prime minister in the aftermath of last year’s war with Azerbaijan.

Electoral code reform has been another point of contention among parties in the runup to the vote this summer. The reform, which has been on the books since at least 2018, envisages a fully-proportional system among other changes. Despite helping to craft this reform package, Bright Armenia leader Edmon Marukyan stated concern that with an election now looming, the Central Election Committee would not have time to properly implement the reform packages’ provisions.  

Despite receiving approval by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, the electoral reform bill was not signed by the Armenian president, but not rejected either. The bill was instead signed into law by Speaker of the Armenian Parliament Ararat Mirzoyan, in accordance with the Constitution. However, in light of the concerns highlighted by Manukyan, only part of the bill will be implemented before the election, with other provisions, such as the lowering of the entry barrier, and electoral fraud violations to come later.

One controversial provision which would have been entirely removed with the reform –– the use of mobile ballot boxes — has instead found new life in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. With over ten thousand active cases in the country two months before the vote, public health officials and electoral officials are scrambling to ensure that the constitutional right to vote is not impeded by the ongoing public health crisis. The government is struggling to ensure that basic hygiene rules are kept, such as requiring masks, social distancing and more. However not all designated locations are designed to meet these requirements

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