Armenian voters cast their ballots at a polling station in central Yerevan (photo Raffi Elliott)

Pashinyan Holds on to Power after Bruising Election

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YEREVAN — With 100 percent of ballots being counted as of the morning of Monday, June 21, incumbent Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is projected to retain a reduced parliamentary majority following a bitterly contested electoral campaign. The election, which took place on Sunday, June 20, was triggered in May when Pashinyan resigned as part of an agreement with opposition parties in a bid to end months of political tension rocking the country in the wake of last autumn’s Azerbaijani invasion of Artsakh.

According to preliminary results announced by the Central Election Committee, the prime minister’s Civil Contract party received 53.92 percent of the vote, enough to form a working majority government. His main rival, an electoral alliance led by former President Robert Kocharyan, which includes the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, finished a distant second with 21 percent. The third force, “I Have Honor,” another electoral alliance which includes former President Serzh Sargsyan’s Republican Party and former National Security Service Chief Artur Vanetsyan, received just over 5 percent. However, electoral rules require alliances to pass a 7-percent threshold to enter parliament, but also necessitates a minimum of three parties, so the final composition of the National Assembly remains to be decided. None of the other 23 other parties and alliances contesting the vote crossed the threshold.

Declaring victory at his campaign headquarters late on Sunday night, Pashinyan spoke of the need to “restore public and national unity” after what many critics have described as a deeply divisive campaign. “The people have given me the mandate to continue to lead this crisis,” the Prime Minister continued, promising to restore peace, secure sovereignty while continuing more aggressive reforms in business, culture and STEM research.

While not outright rejecting the results, Kocharyan’s Armenia Alliance cast doubt on the preliminary figures, calling them “highly controversial.” In their official statement, the alliance insisted that the result did not reflect the “manifestations of public life” which the alliance’s leadership believes had been demonstrated in several polls and in particular, the large pre-election rally held in Yerevan on the eve of the election. They also called for an “in-depth and substantiated investigation into all registered and alleged violations.”

However, the legitimacy of polling results showing Kocharyan either tied or ahead of Pashinyan has been questioned by several analysts. One such polling company, MPG, which confusingly uses the brand name “Gallup International” — despite no affiliation with the American pollster of the same name — has been at the center of controversy for more than a decade. Owned by a former associate of Robert Kocharyan, the company has been described as a “polling mill,” pumping out results tailored to the tastes of clients. 

Political consultant Eric Hacopian suggested that the polling conducted by MPG as well as another nebulous Ukrainian pollster were part of a coordinated campaign by the opposition to give the appearance of a race being too close to call, in order to then discredit the voting results. 

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One of the more reliable polls, conducted by the Armenian Election Study, showed that voters who leaned towards Kocharyan resonated with his message of promoting security over democracy, while Pashinyan supporters, on the other hand, valued democratic governance more. 

Dr. Anna Ohanyan, a nonresident senior scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues that the choice between security and democracy is a false dichotomy. “Externally, democratic institutions, and meaningful elections in particular, elevate the role of the people and the people’s power as a geopolitical factor,” she told the Mirror-Spectator. “Most importantly, only by deepening democratic institutions and practices can state-building take place.” In her view, building transparent and democratic state institutions are a prerequisite for ensuring the security of citizens. 

Kocharyan’s electoral campaign has also faced much public scrutiny, marred by questions about financing, political advertising and vote buying. Unlike his opponents, Kocharyan chose to mostly hold rallies in indoor spaces, often in undisclosed locations. 

The Alliance’s campaign manager, Armen Gevorgyan, explained the decision as making them more accessible to voters. “Strangely enough, our supporters prefer indoor meetings which allow them to directly communicate with alliance representatives,” Gevorgyan told the press. However, critics have accused the campaign of deliberately choosing these settings to conceal the true number of attendees and only inviting media representatives from “friendly” outlets on the understanding that they would not be asking any awkward questions.

While both campaigns have accused each other of abusing administrative resources, handing out bribes and threatening workers to attend rallies, virtually all of the criminal charges regarding vote buying were laid against representatives of the Armenia Alliance, as well as the “I Have Honor” alliance and the Prosperous Armenia party. 

The election itself seems to have gone through without major incidents according to various independent observers. Police reported receiving a total of 87 calls involving electoral violations while the polling stations were open, five of which were considered criminal offenses. The Early Election Working Group of Armenia’s Prosecutor General’s Office received 338 reports from across the country’s 2008 polling stations, including 26 which merit criminal investigations. The Human Rights Defender’s Office, for its part, received 145 calls. Most of these consisted of technical violations during the voting process. A total of 11 arrests were made on suspicion of vote buying by the Special Investigative Service. One candidate, the liberal Arman Babajanyan, was apparently the victim of a shooting. He remained unharmed. 

Independent Observer, an observation mission charged with overseeing conduct of the election declared, on Monday, that Sunday’s vote had been free and fair despite some violations. These, in turn, were mostly blamed on opposition forces. 

This sentiment was echoed by the representatives of a joint observation mission consisting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) which deployed more than 200 international observers across the country. 

At a press conference held in Yerevan on Monday, Kari Henrisken, who heads the Parliamentary Assembly, hailed the vote as “competitive and generally well-managed,” despite a polarizing campaign atmosphere and inflammatory rhetoric. George Katrougalos, of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, also concluded that the elections “respected the democratic character and the constitutional order,” despite what he called “minor technical irregularities” such as lack of access for people with disabilities in certain polling stations.

Nikol Pashinyan had been under pressure to resign since signing the November 9 ceasefire agreement with Russia and Azerbaijan, which his critics consider an act of capitulation. Pashinyan has in turn defended his conduct of the war, insisting that continuing the forty four day conflict would put the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers in jeopardy. He instead blamed decades worth of entrenched corruption and graft in the Army under former Presidents Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan for leaving the army unprepared, under equipped and doctrinally incapable of countering the high-tech Israeli and Turkish-manufactured weaponry which Azerbaijan deployed in the battle space last September.

Despite the prime minister’s landslide victory, Hacopian warned that this is not so much a new mandate for Pashinyan, but a rejection of the old regime. “The focus needs to be on governing, his mandate is to solve the issues that he failed to tackle over the previous two years,” the analyst says.

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