Armenian political deadlock to be lifted with early elections

Sat 6 Mar 2021

Armenian political deadlock to be lifted with early elections

Since the Russian-brokered peace agreement was signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it has been unstable in Armenia. Opposition parties have united against the government and the once so popular Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has lost much of his support. When military officers demanded his resignation in a letter, after a dispute about the lost war against Azerbaijan in the fall of 2020, Pashinyan claimed a military coup was taking place. He rallied his supporters, but protesters critical of Pashinyan, demanding his resignation, have swarmed the streets as well. Their calls for re-elections finally seem to be heard, but Pashinyan made very clear that those possible re-elections will take place on his terms. Negotiations between Pashinyan and opposition leader Edmon Marukyan, about possible re-elections and its conditions, have so far proven unsuccessful.

Already existing political deadlock

Protesters in Armenia have en-masse taken to the streets since the November 2020 trilateral peace-accord between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. In a disastrous war Armenia was forced to cede large parts of its territory, in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region, to Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh region, an Armenian exclave in Azerbaijan largely inhabited by Armenians, takes an important place in the identity of Armenians. This explains why major protests that have erupted since the peace agreement was signed, which is seen as a Pashinyan failure. The opposition parties have become highly critical of Pashinyan, demanding his resignation and calling for re-elections.

Pashinyan has been trying to arrest several op the opposition members that have been organising protests, but continues to be blocked by the judiciary. The united opposition under the name of the Homeland Salvation Movement (HSM) has put forward former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian as a possible replacement of Pashinyan. The HSM consists of sixteen opposition parties, including the Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP) of Gagik Tsarukyanin and the Bright Armenian Party (BAP) of Edmon Marukyan, which are represented in parliament. Other opposition parties that have failed to reach the 5% electoral threshold in the 2018 elections make up the remaining large proportion of HSM parties. These also include the former government party, the Republic Party of Armenia (ARF).

Prime Minister Pashinyan claims military coup taking place

A dispute between Pashinyan and high placed military officials over the usage of weapons during the lost war against Azerbaijan caused the army officer to demand Pashinyan’s resignation. The military usually does not get involved in politics, but they “have had enough” after many accusation and critical notes of Pashinyan about the role of the military in the war against Azerbaijan. A letter demanding Pashinyan’s resignation was signed by several dozen military officials, among them Chief of the General Staff Onik Gasparian. Pashinyan was accused of bringing the country “to the brink of collapse” and the general staff stated that “it will no longer be able to make adequate decisions in this critical situation for the Armenian people”. It remained unclear whether the military was willing to use force to make Pashinyan resign.

Nonetheless, Pashinyan feared the end of his rule had come and swiftly responded, claiming that a military coup was unfolding. He gathered his supporters, brought with him a megaphone and marched through the streets of Yerevan, meanwhile dismissing the claims made by Gasparian. Acknowledging that the situation in the country had been tense, he sought to rally the country, stating that “we must agree that there cannot be clashes”. The ministry of defence also declared that the military overstepped the line by getting involved in politics. Shortly afterwards Pashinyan called upon President Armen Sakisian, who has mostly a ceremonial function, to sign the decree stripping General Staff Chief Gasparian of his function. So far Sakisian has refused to do so, but it seems that he lacks enough power to prevent the sacking of Gasparian in the long run.

Protesters demand Pashinyan resignation and re-elections

Even though Pashinyan hinted at the possibility of early elections, his My Step party rejected the protesters’ demand in early February. The opposition continued to protest and demand Pashinyan’s resignation. After the events that have unfolded with the military, many opposition leaders seized the opportunity to rally their supporters. Hoping to challenge the Pashinyan government, opposition leader Edmon Marukyan has been telling that “the people must take to the street and express their will so that we can avoid bloodshed and turmoil”. He is destined to get rid of Pashinyan and his followers, claiming that “we will lose Armenia” otherwise. The size of protests increased significantly since PM-military dispute, putting more pressure on the Pashinyan government. The opposition supporters have been calling Pashinyan “a traitor”.

Pashinyan agrees to re-elections, on his terms

As a consequence of the ongoing protests against his rule, Pashinyan has stated that he is prepared to hold early elections. “If the parliamentary opposition agrees to early elections, we will agree to early elections”, he said. However, the possible snap elections are only set to take place on his terms, making it more understandable. A condition is that parliamentary factions would need to declare that they shall not vote for another prime minister if he steps down to clear the way for elections. With such a condition Pashinyan hopes to make sure he will maintain his post as prime minister, regardless of the election outcome. His support steadily decreased, as his approval rating of 80% after the 2018 peaceful revolution dropped to about 30% shortly after the end of the 44-day war Azerbaijan.

Without any explanation Pashinyan also proposed holding a referendum on the adoption of a new constitution, which would expand the presidential powers. This could help resolve future crises such as these, but Pashinyan’s motivations remain unclear. On March 4 talks between Pashinyan and opposition leader Edmond Marukyan have been taking place about possible re-elections, and the conditions set by Pashinyan. The talks have so far been unsuccessful, but calling elections might become unavoidable as protesters continue to take to the streets. The conditions under which they will take place are still to be determined.

Sources: Aljazeera1, Aljazeera2, AP, AW,  BBC, DW, EUobserver, Euronews1, Euronews2, France24, Hetq, Reuters, MT, OC, Rferl1, Rferl2, Rferl3, Rferl4, Rferl5, Rferl6, Rferl7

Image: Wikimedia (Edmon Marukyan)