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Armenia Votes For New Parliament, Braces For Possible Violence After 'Toxic' Campaign

Groups led by former Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (left) and former President Robert Kocharian will go head-to-head on June 20.
Groups led by former Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (left) and former President Robert Kocharian will go head-to-head on June 20.

YEREVAN -- Armenia's snap elections are aimed at resolving a political crisis that has engulfed the country since fighting last autumn in the war against Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

However, analysts warn that the results on June 20 could spark renewed political violence in the streets of Yerevan.

Although there are 21 parties and four alliances taking part, the contest has become a power struggle between two main forces: Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian's Civil Contract party, and the newly created Armenia Alliance of former President Robert Kocharian.

Pashinian's popularity has plummeted since he signed a Russian-brokered cease-fire in November 2020 that halted Azerbaijan's military advance in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. The deal also restored Baku's sovereignty over the seven districts around Nagorno-Karabakh that had been controlled by ethnic Armenian forces since the early 1990s -- a development that spawned Yerevan's ongoing crisis.

As a result, Pashinian's approval rating has fallen from 60 percent before the six-week war to about 24 percent. Meanwhile, support for Kocharian's Armenia Alliance has jumped from 7 percent to about 24 percent since it was founded in early May.

Supporters of Nikol Pashinian rally in the center of Yerevan on June 17.
Supporters of Nikol Pashinian rally in the center of Yerevan on June 17.

That means a close race for first place is likely between Civil Contract and Armenia Alliance. What remains unclear is whether either group will be able to control a majority in the parliament -- either on their own or by building a governing coalition.

Armenian political analysts say that depends on which smaller parties win at least 5 percent of the vote to secure seats and which political alliances cross the required 7 percent threshold.

If no party or alliance wins an outright majority, each has six days to try to put together a coalition. Failing that, a runoff vote between the two top parties or alliances will determine the final distribution of seats under Armenia's so-called "stable majority" rule.

That provision automatically gives the winner of such a runoff 54 percent of the legislature's seats. Remaining seats would be divided as mandated by the first-round results.

The total number of deputies in parliament will range from 101 to as many as 200 -- depending on the distribution of seats after the vote and whether a second-round ballot is necessary.

Yerevan-based political analyst Benyamin Poghosian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that barring any "extraordinary" last-minute developments, he thinks "no party or alliance can get enough votes to form a one-party government." "It is clear to me that we are likely to have either a coalition government or a runoff," he said.

'Toxic' Campaign

Political commentators have described Armenia's election campaign as "toxic." Pashinian and Kocharian both accuse each other of being "traitors" who are responsible for the battlefield losses of Armenian forces.

"Armenia is consumed with the domestic political crisis that followed its capitulation in the war," the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a June 9 report. "Nagorno-Karabakh dominates the campaign, as politicians assign blame for the wartime losses and make promises for the future."

In addition to Kocharian, Armenia's two other post-Soviet presidents are also challenging Pashinian. All three blame Pashinian for Armenia's war losses, which have sent ethnic Armenians fleeing areas last controlled by Azerbaijan decades ago.

"All call for closer relations with Russia, which they hope can help sustain the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh and provide a security guarantee for the region's remaining Armenian-populated areas," the ICG notes.

Levon Ter-Petrosian speaks at a press conference in Yerevan on June 10.
Levon Ter-Petrosian speaks at a press conference in Yerevan on June 10.

Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian heads the Armenian National Congress Party. It is not expected to clear the 5 percent threshold. But Ter-Petrosian has been vociferous in his criticism of Pashinian, calling him "a disaster."

Ter-Petrosian has also criticized Kocharian and another ex-president, Serzh Sarkisian, for their hard-line stances on Nagorno-Karabakh during their presidencies. He says both should have resolved the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict peacefully under terms that would have been far more advantageous to Yerevan than the Moscow-brokered cease-fire deal of November.

Although Sarkisian does not appear on any official candidate list in the June 20 vote, he has been indirectly involved in the campaign. He has thrown the weight of his former ruling Republican Party (HHK) behind the I Have Honor Alliance, which is led by former security services chief Artur Vanetsian.

Artur Vanetsian (left) appears with ex-President Serzh Sarkisian at a party rally earlier this month.
Artur Vanetsian (left) appears with ex-President Serzh Sarkisian at a party rally earlier this month.

Prosperous Armenia, a party led by the powerful businessman Gagik Tsarukian, is seen as a strong contender to win parliamentary seats. In the past, Tsarukian has been both an ally and an opponent of Sarkisian and Pashinian. Analysts conclude that Tsarukian is unlikely to join a governing coalition with Pashinian. But they say he could be enticed to join forces with Kocharian.

The Shirinian-Babajanian Alliance of Democrats, a pro-Western and pro-European grouping, is seen as likely to form a coalition with Pashinian's Civil Contract if the alliance clears the 7 percent threshold.

The Republic Party of former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh Sarkisian) is a pro-European party that has indicated it would join a coalition with Pashinian's Civil Contract if it got into parliament.

Bright Armenia leader Edmon Marukian speaks with journalists in Yerevan on June 11.
Bright Armenia leader Edmon Marukian speaks with journalists in Yerevan on June 11.

Edmon Marukian, a Western-educated, former ally of Pashinian with pro-European leanings, has said his Bright Armenia party won't support Pashinian or Kocharian as prime minister. Marukian says he wants all parties elected to parliament to form a government of national accord. He says the government should comprise technocrats who are appointed by all parties and alliances while politicians remain in parliament.

Threat Of Violence

The emotionally charged rhetoric of the election campaign has raised concerns of postelection political violence.

The U.S. Embassy in Yerevan on June 16 warned U.S. citizens to be wary of demonstrations during the following two weeks, another sign that clashes between rival political factions are seen as possible.

Political analyst Benyamin Poghosian says that if the results show Pashinian's Civil Contract party with more than 50 percent of the vote, empowering it to form a one-party government, "the outcome will not be recognized by at least one part of the opposition represented by Armenia Alliance -- and perhaps also other parts of the opposition."

"After that, developments could be unpredictable," Poghosian warned. "It will certainly lead to street clashes."

If Pashinian's Civil Contract fails to win 50 percent of the vote but is able to build a coalition with other parties, Poghosian says the threat of political violence is less clear. He says it's also difficult to predict how Pashinian's supporters will behave if a coalition government is built around Kocharian's Armenia Alliance.

Kocharian warned in late May that his alliance will stage street protests if it determines Armenian authorities have rigged the results in favor of Pashinian's party. Other opposition forces have also not ruled out postelection protests.

Pashinian has repeatedly said on the campaign trail that he expects his party to win at least 60 percent of the vote. In what close observers say is an unprecedented move, the Civil Contract on June 14 confirmed it had arranged daylong rallies in Yerevan's two largest squares for four consecutive days after the vote.

Pashinian has said that the June 21 rally on Yerevan's Republic Square would celebrate a Civil Contract victory. But neither Pashinian nor his associates have explained why they would continue demonstrations from June 22 to 24.

Some opposition figures and critics of Pashinian have speculated that he is making contingency plans for a possible defeat. In that case, they claim, his supporters could put pressure on the Central Election Commission or provoke violent clashes with opposition protesters to have the results annulled.

Political analyst Armen Baghdasarian says the toxic campaign rhetoric of both Civil Contract and Armenia Alliance has raised the prospects of political violence after the vote. "The main messages of these two political forces is to destroy each other," Baghdasarian told RFE/RL. "If this was a boxing match, what we are seeing now is the stage when two boxers stare each other down, trying to intimidate the opponent."

"The impression is that, ahead of an inevitable fight, each side is preparing their teams for it," he said. "Neither side appears ready to step back."

"Both sides are ready for clashes and both are preparing their supporters for clashes," Baghdasarian said. "This match, unfortunately, will be after the elections in the streets of Yerevan."

Written and reported by Ron Synovitz in Prague with additional reporting by Suren Musayelyan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service in Yerevan