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Armenia's Elections Test Its Democratic Credentials

Nikol Pashinian campaigns in Yerevan's subway on December 5.
Nikol Pashinian campaigns in Yerevan's subway on December 5.

Almost nine months ago, tens of thousands of Armenians took to the streets demanding a reboot of the country's political system to stamp out corruption and entrench democratic principles. This weekend will see whether their efforts have been rewarded.

Snap parliamentary elections on December 9 pit allies of acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, the unassuming former journalist who led the demonstrations that remade Armenia's political landscape this spring in a trademark backpack and baseball cap, against the longtime ruling Republican Party (HHK).

Opinion polls gave Pashinian's My Step alliance a sizable lead ahead of the voting, after a campaign pockmarked with mudslinging, negative ads, and a historic open debate between the 11 party leaders running for office.

"There is the question of whether Armenia's recent revolution will indeed result in the kind of 'deep democratization' aspired to by much of its population," according to Kevork Oskanian, a political scientist at the University of Birmingham.

"Eurasia is littered with the broken promises of failed, or half-baked revolutions that, have, over time, resulted in disillusionment in a new, unsatisfactory status quo," he adds in a reference to derailed reform efforts in a number of post-Soviet states.

Pashinian pushed for early parliamentary elections following his bloc's landslide victory in the mayoral race in the capital, Yerevan.

It is seen as a bid to unseat his Republican political opponents, who have maintained a majority in the national parliament since reluctantly bowing to pressure to back Pashinian's successful bid to become prime minister to ease tensions in May.

New Vs. Old

Pashinian's My Step alliance consists of current government members and supporters of the movement that came to power in the wave of peaceful street protests last spring.

The list of candidates of the former ruling Republicans is headed by former Defense Minister Vigen Sarkisian.

Vigen Sarkisian is no relation to former Prime Minister and longtime President Serzh Sarkisian, who sparked the massive unrest in April that many Armenians regarded as a "velvet revolution" when he orchestrated a swift return to the prime minister's office after two terms as president. Serzh Sarkisian is not among the candidates and reportedly has not been involved in the campaign.

"There is the question of whether Armenia's recent revolution will indeed result in the kind of 'deep democratization' aspired to by much of its population," one analyst says.
"There is the question of whether Armenia's recent revolution will indeed result in the kind of 'deep democratization' aspired to by much of its population," one analyst says.

Casting himself as a man of the people, Pashinian has traveled throughout the country, knocking on doors, shaking hands, and riding public transport in Yerevan, where he handed out party pamphlets to amused onlookers.

In another clear sign of the break with the past, Pashinian's party slate has the youngest candidates running in the election with a median age of 35.

"This is a New Armenia. With courage," Pashinian, who used social media to drive both the protests and now his campaign, wrote on Facebook.

Search For Answers

Armenians themselves seem anxious to follow through on their protest demands of eliminating institutional corruption and graft that has plagued the Caucasus nation since it broke free from the Soviet Union in 1991.

A Gallup poll conducted on December 1-4 among 1,100 voters put the My Step alliance well ahead of all other parties with 69.4 percent.

No other party broke the 6 percent level, with the Republican Party at around 1.3 percent support.

Pashinian is seeking to enact deep structural reforms to an economy that has been hampered by decades of graft and to stem a trend of rising national debt that reached $6.5 billion at the end of the first half of the year, or about 56 percent of economic output, compared with $1.5 billion a decade earlier.

Analysts say the campaign had largely failed to focus on the issues.
Analysts say the campaign had largely failed to focus on the issues.

But analysts said the campaign had largely failed to focus on such issues.

Instead, allegations of wrongdoing have been hurled from all sides, while the Republican Party has sought to highlight Pashinian's largely untested political record.

"Hate looms large in pre-election campaign in #Armenia. Too bad politicians don't want to focus on real changes people need," said Giorgi Gogia, associate director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division.

Playing On Uncertainty

A series of posters used by the Republican Party asked voters if they were concerned about issues such as the border and job security while offering no solutions.

"If you are concerned by an indefinite future, vote Republican," said one ad.

Virtually all of the Republican ads began with the phrases "If you are concerned with..." or "If you worry about..."

But the campaign appeared to be missing the mark, instead arming social media with fodder to create parodies of the ads.

"If you have memory-loss, vote Republican," blared one mock ad, while one Facebook user created a video mixing real audio from a Republican ad with visuals suggesting ways the party failed when it was in power.

Tough Neighborhood

If Pashinian emerges victorious on December 9, as expected, he will face the precarious task of balancing the country's needs with the challenges posed by living in a region where Moscow watches every move.

Armenia is dependent on Russia for security through a defense pact in the Caucasus region, where simmering tensions can boil over at any moment.

Armenia is geographically locked between Iran, Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, with which it fought a war in the 1990s over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, where a fragile cease-fire agreement barely manages to keep a lid on hostilities.

The previous administrations of both Robert Kocharian -- who is in custody awaiting trial on charges of "overthrowing Armenia's constitutional order" -- and Sarkisian, who led Armenia into the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, were in close contact with Russia, which has a military base in Armenia.

Moscow is also Armenia's main arms supplier.

"The ultimate test of Armenia's nascent democracy will lie in the Pashinian bloc's ability to avoid a descent towards a typical, post-Soviet 'party of power,' as evidenced by a peaceful transfer of authority at some point in the future," analyst Oksanian says.

With reporting by Siranuysh Gevorgyan of RFE/RL's Armenian Service

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