Armenia’s December Elections: High Hopes for Revolution’s Finale
On October 16, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan resigned after assuming office in May of this year. The opposition-led National Assembly (Armenian Parliament), after being pressured by the public not to elect another prime minister, was dissolved, generating the need for new parliamentary elections.
These early elections will take place on December 9; their results will either uphold or undo Armenia’s new commitment to democratic governance sparked during Pashinyan’s so-called “Velvet Revolution” that took place in May of this year. Holding early parliamentary elections will be Pashinyan’s last chance to carry out the goals of his revolution: to fight a long-standing corrupt regime and to bring about transparency, democratic governance, and the rule of law.
Since gaining independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia has been almost entirely governed by corrupt leaders. The protests in May, which erupted in the capital, Yerevan, and other major cities, were aimed at fighting the corrupt post-Soviet regime. In late April, they crystallized into the Pashinyan-led “Revolution”. Pashinyan’s peaceful demonstrations eventually led to the resignation of the infamous Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and the appointment of Pashinyan as Prime Minister by the National Assembly. What followed was a period of renewed hope in a previously hopeless society.
The appointment of Pashinyan, however, is not the end of the story. The National Assembly is still majority Republican, Sargsyan’s party, and has the potential to impede Pashinyan from passing legislation needed to strengthen democracy in the country. With Pashinyan’s resignation and the set election date, the question becomes: will Pashinyan’s party, the “Way Out Alliance,” gain majority in the National Assembly, and will the elections be void of rigging, which was common in pre-Revolution elections on the part of the Republicans? Has the new prime minister accomplished enough to merit the trust of Armenians? Arguably, the developments in the past six months should generate tremendous hope for Pashinyan’s party and point to a continuation of remarkable political change in the country.
From the Rotten Regime to the “Velvet Revolution”
In 2008, when Armenia was still a semi-presidential republic, Sargsyan, leader of the Republican Party, was elected president. In this system, the president and the National Assembly shared power equally. Sargsyan’s ascendancy was not peaceful: his election sparked small-scale demonstrations, resulting in at least ten dead due to violent riot suppression by the police. This marked the beginning of Armenia’s downward spiral of corruption and economic downturn, resulting in thousands of citizens emigrating from the country in search for jobs elsewhere, and those still in the country facing increasingly lower standards of living.
Seven years later, in 2015, Sargsyan held a Constitutional referendum to attempt to transition the country to a parliamentary regime, in which the Prime Minister would serve as the highest political authority. His proposed amendments would put restrictions on the freedoms of citizens and consolidate power in the hands of the ruling party. Not unlike previous elections in 2008 and 2013 with his reelection, Sargsyan managed to rig the 2015 elections using a wide array of tactics, including ballot stuffing and holding multiple elections. Ultimately, he managed to obtain 66.2 percent of the votes in favor of amending the Constitution.
Despite pre-referendum polls showing high rates of disapproval for the amendments, the new constitution was passed and went into effect in 2018, effectively allowing President Sargsyan to become Prime Minister Sargsyan, even though he was legally ineligible to run for President for a third term. On April 17, 2018, the National Assembly voted 77–17 in favor of Sargsyan as prime minister.
However, when it became clear that the Republican Party would not oppose Sargsyan assuming the post of prime minister in March, small-scale demonstrations began plaguing Armenia.
In mid-April, the leader of the opposition party “Way Out Alliance” Nikol Pashinyan began a protest march from Gyumri to capital Yerevan, traversing seventy-five miles on foot and holding a small rally at the end. The day prior to Sargsyan’s confirmation as prime minister witnessed the rapid escalation of the protests that continued to grow exponentially following the nomination. Mass demonstrations of thousands of people filled the streets to #RejectSerzh. Pashinyan ushered in more people to take to the streets through his now-iconic Facebook livestreams.
Under pressure from the mass popular protests, Sargsyan resigned on April 23. Following his resignation, the National Assembly voted Pashinyan as Armenia’s new Prime Minister (after an initial attempt by Republicans to block his nomination). With the surprising non-interference by Russia, after a regime change in its ‘backyard’ (in a policy break from the cases of Georgia and Ukraine), the “people’s leader” came to power without a single bullet fired.
Pashinyan’s Ambitious Armenia
Before the confirmation of his nomination as prime minister, Pashinyan said in a speech, “No more bribes, no more monopolies, human rights will be protected, rule of law will prevail!” Following his confirmation, Pashinyan set out the task of “ambitious housecleaning” with the young members of his new government. Despite some criticism for having a relatively inexperienced team, the new prime minister was able to have the country stand on its feet and move forward in significant ways.
After just a few days in office, Pashinyan appointed a new Police Chief and a new director of the National Security Service of Armenia, with the task of eradicating corruption. Finally, Pashinyan had the tools to carry out his long-held goals, dating back to his imprisonment on fictitious charges by the previous regime in 2009. His new anti-corruption campaign targeted ex-top officials, including former President Robert Kocharyan.
In mid-June, Pashinyan’s reforms grew in severity, through arrests of ex-officials and raids of their houses. The National Security Service raided the house of a retired army lieutenant, Manvel Grigoryan, revealing that the mansion held food originally allocated to front-line Armenian soldiers. These horrid discoveries shook the nation, putting Pashinyan and his efforts under a positive light despite some criticism of Pashinyan’s probable interference with the judiciary. In his rally celebrating his hundredth day in office, Pashinyan highlighted his fight against corruption and talked about the potential establishment of transitional justice institutions in an effort to systematically investigate the abuses of the previous regime.
Economically, the country made small but significant steps. The fight of Pashinyan’s government against monopolies has proved significant in allowing parity in competition and enabling long-term economic growth. During his one-hundredth day rally, Pashinyan proudly remarked that it took him “forty minutes to eliminate the monopolies of sugar and banana” that used to belong to political elites of the old regime. Investment trends in Armenia have not changed dramatically, but this is likely a result of the uncertainties following the revolution and not a reflection of Pashinyan’s economic policies. With increased transparency and democratic governance, Pashinyan’s government is projected to guarantee economic growth and development in the country.
In the international arena, Pashinyan’s Armenia and the massive changes it incurred were largely portrayed in a positive light. Pashinyan was seen by many as a pro-European Union politician, given his support for democratic governance and his desire to “deepen relations” with the EU. In September, Pashinyan represented Armenia at the UN General Assembly in New York, and the country also hosted the annual Francophonie Summit in Yerevan. With the Western powers endorsing his policies and Russia remaining neutral in regards to these changes, Pashinyan managed to position Armenia very favorably in the international system, strategically and effectively avoiding confrontation with any major power.
Early Elections: What Is to Come?
On October 16, Pashinyan resigned in order to run in the early parliamentary elections. This was one of the initial promises made during his Revolution, since Pashinyan claimed the still majority-Republican parliament would not reflect the true will of the people, nor the political reality in the country, absent of new elections. He predicted that, because Republicans had been forced to confirm him as prime minister, his proposed legislations, especially his anti-corruption policies, which largely targeted Republicans, would not receive enough support.
Following Pashinyan’s resignation, the National Assembly formally dissolved and the new election day was confirmed as December 9. Now, the question becomes: will Pashinyan’s party gain the majority of seats in the National Assembly?
The Republican Party has been historically notorious for its election fraud, blocking democratic governance in the country for ages. This was how Sargsyan had been elected in the first place. Pashinyan managed to somewhat take the country out of that vicious cycle, but it is important to be suspicious of this fast-paced progress. Up until now, the Republican Party has had, to some extent, control over Armenian politics. After their conscious decision to dissolve the National Assembly, in effort to avoid another wave of demonstrations, it is tempting to believe that the party is letting the people decide the country’s fate. However, this seems unlikely, given the historical tendency of the Republican Party to interfere.
Despite these reservations, however, hopes run high for the new Armenia. The Republican Party proved largely ineffective in interfering in the municipal elections of Yerevan. Election contenders, local monitors, and media report an “unusually small number of irregularities or violent incidents” in the election that voted the candidate of Pashinyan’s party into the position of mayor. The tremendous success in holding virtually free and fair elections, coupled with Pashinyan’s high approval ratings, point to the possibility of achieving a true democracy in Armenia. This has yet to be proven; the December elections will mark either the success or failure of the ambitious “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia.
Ken Krmoyan is a Staff Writer for The Gate.
The image featured is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License and was taken by Pandukht. It can be found here.