Late Saturday evening, Armenia’s Constitutional Court rejected the legal action, brought by several of the opposition parties, against the official results of the early parliamentary elections in June, which produced a surprisingly strong lead for the country’s acting head of government Nikol Pashinyan over his challenger, ex-president Robert Kocharyan. Kocharyan’s Armenia Alliance promptly claimed that there had been massive electoral fraud, despite assurances from local and international election observers that the elections were free and fair. According to the final results released by Armenia’s Central Electoral Commission, three political forces will now enter Parliament: the Civil Contract party led by Prime Minister Pashinyan, with an overwhelming majority of votes (53.91 per cent), followed by the Armenia bloc (21.09 per cent) and the I Have Honor Alliance (5.22 per cent).
Comeback by the former presidents
Eight months after the Nagorno-Karabakh war, which resulted in Armenia having to cede territory to Azerbaijan, Armenia held early National Assembly elections on 20 June 2021 in a post-conflict context of deep political crisis. The main difference between these and all previous parliamentary elections was that an unprecedented number of parties and alliances were registered (21 parties and four alliances). The three former presidents of Armenia and acting Prime Minister Pashinyan also participated with their respective parties and blocs.
Pashinyan’s strongest challenger was ex-president Robert Kocharyan (1998-2008), fielded by the Armenia Alliance as its lead candidate. Kocharyan’s political comeback commenced after the dropping of criminal charges brought against him in the aftermath of the 2018 Velvet Revolution. It was alleged that he had violated the constitutional order with his violent crackdown on protesters after the 2008 presidential election and that he had also accepted a substantial sum in bribes.
Rather than being a battle of ideas, the elections quickly became a clash of personalities. It was almost impossible to detect any substantive differences between the frontrunners’ manifestos, which for the most past emphasised the need for a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict within the OSCE Minsk Group framework, the modernisation and reequipping of the armed forces, and the deepening of security cooperation with Russia.
A tough election campaign: no holds barred
Overall, this was a highly aggressive election campaign, characterised by mutual accusations, hate messages, fake news and media propaganda. Pashinyan sought a ‘steel mandate’ from his voters in order to turn ‘the Velvet Revolution into a Steel Revolution’ and establish a ‘dictatorship of law and justice’. Kocharyan rejected the invitation to a televised debate, announcing instead that he was ready for a duel ‘with any type of weapon’.
The politicians’ aggressive rhetoric further polarised an already divided society. Several news outlets fuelled the situation by disseminating manipulative and false information. ‘Fake factories’ on social media also played a prominent role in the campaign: they sought to create the impression that there was broad support for one side or another in an attempt to influence public opinion. Surveys such as those conducted by Russian news agency Ria Novosti were inclined to predict a victory for Kocharyan’s bloc.
By contrast, the election results showed that this (virtual) reality did not capture the mood that actually existed within society. Here, the public’s fear that the former regime could stage a comeback appears to have played a decisive role. Three years after the revolution, this fear apparently overshadowed disappointment at Armenia’s defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. The implication that election victory for Kocharyan was a realistic prospect seems to have impelled large numbers of people to vote for Pashinyan after all; it was to his benefit that his main rivals were the old elites.
Elections: democratic or rigged?
Election observation missions sent by the OSCE/ODIHR and the EU and the CIS and CSTO confirmed that the elections were well-organised and that the infringements that were noted had no impact on the result. Despite the opposition’s claims that the election was rigged, and notwithstanding the legal challenge before the Constitutional Court, there were no protests such as those witnessed frequently during Armenia’s history.
After the election, Pashinyan met with a succession of leaders of the extra-parliamentary movements, and there are plans to set up an advisory body to ensure that they too can be involved in the political process. With this approach, the Prime Minister’s aim is seemingly to form a more substantial counterweight to the parliamentary opposition.
Representatives of civil society, for their part, have issued a joint appeal to the re-elected government to fulfil its historic mission of undertaking all measures necessary for bringing the country out of the current crisis and overcoming societal polarisation. They identify a number of areas in which solutions urgently need to be found, including clarifying the legal status of security for borders and communications, the return of prisoners of war, the formation of a Truth Commission to analyse the mistakes made over the past 30 years, and an inquiry into the causes and consequences of the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
A second chance for Pashinyan
The domestic clashes and polarisation will now be relayed into the newly elected legislature, with Kocharyan pledging an even tougher battle in Parliament, even though he himself does not intend to take his seat. His alliance is accusing Pashinyan of persecution and repression of political opponents following the post-election arrests of six mayors and supporters of the Armenia bloc on allegations of voter bribery and corruption.
This time round, not even Pashinyan’s movement will command the three-fifths majority in Parliament that is required to elect the President of the Republic or the Ombudsman, for example. Given the political arithmetic in Parliament, cooperation and compromise are difficult to imagine; as a result, there may well be further crises and perhaps even another early election.
Well-run elections are no guarantee of democracy. Pashinyan’s re-elected government has been given a second chance to implement the reforms pledged during the Velvet Revolution. A proper political and legal assessment of the mistakes made before and after the revolution is essential here. In this post-conflict phase, the political forces’ acknowledgement of their own mistakes would be highly significant for the future of Armenia.
Nane Khachatryan is a PhD candidate in Political Sciences at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, studying the transformation of the party system in Armenia.