Armenian National Assembly session of August 2, 2021 (courtesy parliament.am)

Armenian National Assembly Holds First New Session, Pashinyan Reappointed as PM

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YEREVAN – The eighth convocation of Armenia’s National Assembly held its first session on Monday, August 2. President Armen Sarkissian officially opened the reconvened parliament which now includes 107 representatives of the three parties which won seats in the June 20 snap election. The vote, which had been triggered as part of a political agreement to end weeks of political tension in the wake of Armenia’s defeat in the Second Artsakh War, was hailed by local and international observers as “free and fair.”

Based on a complex equation for calculating seat distribution, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party, which won just under 55 percent of the ballot, sent 71 representatives to the National Assembly on Monday — one seat shy of an absolute (two-thirds) majority. 

In fact, the Armenian Electoral Code’s Effective Opposition provision specifically prevents the formation of absolute majority governments by adapting the number of seats in favor of the opposition. Such checks and balances in the electoral code are designed to foster cooperation across the aisle on important matters such as constitutional amendments.  

Following a failed appeal to the Constitutional Court, both the Armenia and “I Have Honor” Alliances, which finished second and third, respectively, have agreed to take up their seats in parliament. Twenty-six representatives of the Armenia Alliance, which includes the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and the little-known Reborn Armenia party, took their seats on Monday, but their leader, Robert Kocharyan, was not among them. Following weeks of speculation, the former president, who continues to face corruption charges dating to his time in office, announced his intention to decline his seat on July 20. Justifying his decision, Kocharyan claimed that he was not well suited for a role in opposition; “by virtue of my character I have always been a person of executive power.” He did say he would continue to lead the alliance from outside the parliament. General Seyran Ohanyan, a former Minister of Defense and a close ally of the former president, took his seat in his stead. 

Having won 5.2 percent of the vote, the other opposition alliance, dubbed “I have Honor,” managed to grab the remaining seven seats. The alliance which includes the formerly-ruling Republican Party and headed by the one-time head of the Security Service Arthur Vanetsyan, took up its seats despite not meeting the minimum electoral threshold due to another loophole in the Effective Opposition provision which stipulates a minimum of three political blocs in Parliament.

In his speech on this occasion, President Sarkissian addressed the convocation of returning and freshmen parliamentarians. “Armenia’s future must be built around a strong, egalitarian and forward-thinking vision,” the president said, adding that the government must do everything to protect and preserve an independent statehood as a foundational armenian value, both for the sake of our children, and our ancestors. He added that the new parliament must value professionalism and a strong work ethic. “Populism and demagoguery are a dead end,” he added.

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These words were not, however, enough to dissuade members of the opposition “Armenia Alliance” from causing a ruckus minutes after the President exited the Assembly chamber. Interrupting the session, members of the alliance wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the faces of four Syunik mayors currently facing corruption charges, called on the Speaker of the House to help release fellow would-be-MPs Mkhitar Zakaryan and Arthur Sargsyan, whom they insist are political prisoners. 

“Mkhitar Zakaryan and Arthur Sargsyan are not present at his session not because they don’t want to be here, but because they’re prevented from being here,” said Armenia Alliance MP Aram Vardevanyan, insisting that the two mayors were not absent, but “hostages.”

Mkhitar Zakaryan was the mayor of Meghri in southern Syunik until being charged with abuse of power earlier this year. The former mayor allegedly used his influence to illegally sell municipal property for personal profit. Arthur Sargsyan, the former mayor of Sisian, another Syunik town, allegedly signed non-competitive tenders with companies personally affiliated to him at higher-than-market prices, and embezzled state funds in the process.

Both men, as well as several other Syunik mayors once affiliated with the former-ruling Republican Party of Armenia (and officially registered as candidates for the Armenia Alliance), have called for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation following last year’s war, leading the opposition to slam their arrests as politically motivated. 

However, the Central Election Commission greenlit the arrest warrants which were served before either of the candidates had officially been called to serve at the National Assembly, meaning that they were not yet covered by parliamentary immunity.

Gegham Manukyan of the ARF insinuated that Speaker of the House Knyaz Hasanov was acting hypocritically by not condemning the arrests. “You and I have long-been vocal about the persecution of Kurdish ethnic officials by the Turkish government,” Manukyan told Hasanov –– himself an ethnic Kurd and a well-known Kurdish rights activist, and continued, “You once decried the imprisonment of the Kurdish parliamentarian Leyla Zana as an act of fascism on the part of Turkish authorities, how do you then describe the absence of two Armenian parliamentarians today?”

Another Armenia Alliance MP, Andranik Tevanyan, compared the legal proceedings against the former mayors to Azerbaijan’s attempt to use remaining Armenian POWs in their custody as hostages. 

Arsen Torosyan, the prime minister’s former chief of staff, and leading MP for the governing Civil Contract party, lamented the opposition’s insistence on non-cooperation with the government. In an interview with Radio Free Europe, he equated this decision to telling voters that they will refuse to represent their interests in parliament. “If not, they should accept their mandate, be present at parliamentary sessions and work with the government,” Torosyan responded. He also made it clear that the government has enough votes to push through key reforms with or without the opposition’s cooperation.

On August 2, President of Armenia Armen Sarkissian officially signed an order re-appointing Nikol Pashinyan Prime Minister of Armenia.

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