Armenia confirmed journalist-turned-politician Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister on Sunday (9 December) as voters handed him a landslide victory and banished the former ruling party from parliament, after nearly two decades in power.
Pashinyan’s anti-corruption-focused political bloc, My Step, secured 70.43% of the vote, while fierce rivals the Republican Party went from heroes to zeroes, losing their majority and failing to reach the 5% threshold needed to enter the parliament.
Speaking in the early hours of the morning once half the votes had been counted, the acting prime minister said the landslide result would allow his alliance to “implement all of our agenda”.
His alliance will be joined in parliament by the Prosperous Armenia party and the Bright Armenia party, both of which got enough votes to take seats.
Pashinyan was first swept into office by overwhelming public support in May, after former President Serzh Sargsyan’s attempt at a power-grab backfired, leading to a peaceful revolution that was dubbed “the happiest apocalypse in the world” by supporters.
Ex-Republican leader Sargsyan had been the architect of reforms that transferred the lion’s share of power from the president’s office, which he held for a decade, to the prime minister’s.
Armenians, concerned by the government’s move towards authoritarianism, took to the streets in April 2018 to protest against Sargsyan’s manoeuvring and he resigned later that month, admitting he had “made a mistake”.
The khaki-wearing Pashinyan eventually secured enough parliamentary support to be appointed prime minister and has headed a minority government ever since.
He is the first opposition party leader to wield power since the country gained independence in 1991, makes ample use of social media and participated in Armenia’s first-ever televised political debate between the main parties.
But his plan to fight corruption, break up monopolies and weaken the influence of oligarchs over the political scene has been tempered by his Civil Contract party’s lack of parliament majority, which prompted Pashinyan to call Sunday’s snap elections.
Under Armenian law, no party can hold more than a two-thirds majority, so the number of seats in the parliament will actually increase from 105 up to 130 to compensate.
A lack of Republican representation in the parliament was met with concern by some observers, who warned that a supermajority of 70% and over could be problematic for Pashinyan.
Armenia’s first female mayor and Pashinyan ally, Diana Gasparyan, told EURACTIV before the polls closed that “listening to the opposition is needed” and that “it would be better if the Republicans are in the parliament”.
Somewhat ironically, the Republicans earlier this year blocked a bill that would have lowered the minimum threshold to 4% but as things stand, their 4.7% will not be enough after haemorrhaging a 49% majority.
Pashinyan even told reporters that “I think the Republican Party will register the index that they would have had in the previous elections had there been free and fair elections”.
Turnout was low at 48% and failed to match previous election figures. However, claims have been made since Pashinyan became acting prime minister that vote-buying was commonplace under Sargsyan’s regime.
The new prime minister said that electoral reform will be one of his priorities, adding that “we know for sure that there are not 2.6 million voters in Armenia. It is one thing to be on the voters’ list, something else to be in Armenia.”
Gasparyan also suggested that “people are tired, they are fatigued from the revolution and the time since. They also maybe think that their vote is not so important because of the likelihood of victory.”
Political analyst Alen Ghevondyan said that poor weather, the inevitability of the result and no financial incentive to go out and vote were factors. He warned that the low turnout could be used as ammunition by the opposition to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote.
Sunday’s elections were not squeaky clean though, as independent observers reported numerous violations, including campaign posters at polling stations and failures to follow proper electoral process.
NGO Transparency International also reported that nearly half of all polling stations did not provide disabled access.
— Nikol Pashinyan (@NikolPashinyan) December 9, 2018
Former justice minister and Republican lawmaker Arpine Hovhannisyan said that “all the kinds of violations present in the previous elections are present in today’s elections”.
However, voters at the Shengavit district station, where Pashinyan cast his ballot, were in agreement that the elections were the most “free and transparent” to date.
One 73-year-old said that she was “very happy, because there is no intimidation, no pressure to vote for one particular party”. Another voter said that she now feels “like a citizen, not a slave”.
The European Parliament dispatched an observer mission headed by Finnish MEP Heidi Hautala (Greens) to the former Soviet nation, where head of state President Armen Sargsyan welcomed the delegation.
Vote counting done by the excellent electoral commission in the Vardashen prison in Yerevan. 49 inmates voted out of 49 entitled to vote, freely. Most of everything everywhere ran smoothly. Like night and day compared with 2017 elections. #Armvote18 pic.twitter.com/o17Lgtg1ws
— Heidi Hautala (@HeidiHautala) December 9, 2018
Getting down to business
The task ahead for Pashinyan is not an easy one, as Armenia still faces a number of serious economic and political challenges.
Poverty levels top 30%, unemployment is rife and relations with neighbours Azerbaijan and Turkey are poor at best, due to the ongoing conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region and recognition status of the Armenian genocide.
Its economy is still largely built on agriculture, the gaming industry and mining but plans are afoot to transform Armenia into a tech-player. In fact, UK magazine The Enterprise Times recently ranked Yerevan as the 4th best cities around the world for a tech career.
Pashinyan’s chief adviser, Arsen Gasparyan, told EURACTIV that the prime minister’s strategy would focus on an “economisation of foreign policy”, by leveraging Armenia’s existing ties with both the European Union and the Russia-helmed Eurasian Union.
Gasparyan batted away suggestions that Armenia’s transition of power will be poorly received in Moscow, insisting that the two countries have “historic and cultural ties” and that Vladimir Putin himself was recently elected in “free and fair elections”.
Russia is Armenia’s biggest source of foreign direct investment, provides troops to help man the closed border with Turkey and is its main supplier of cheap natural gas.
But the new government hopes to exploit Armenia’s huge solar power potential and become a renewable energy pioneer in the region and foreign investments are already starting to pay off, especially from China.
Analyst Ghevondyan concluded though that Pashinyan’s approach to the Karabakh issue more than the economy could ultimately have a bigger impact on his ability to hold onto power.
The first sitting of the parliament is likely to be held on 7 January, although the Republicans could appeal the election result, delaying it for up to a month.