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Armenians prepare to go to the polls in historic election

19 June 2021
Nikol Pashinyan (left) and Robert Kocharyan (right). Photos: Ani Avetisyan/OC Media.

Roughly two-and-a-half million Armenians are going to the polls tomorrow in snap parliamentary elections. The elections are the result of the political turmoil in Armenia triggered by a disastrous defeat in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Opinion polls ahead of the elections suggest a dramatic growth in support for former president Robert Kocharyan at the expense of acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party. 

The decline in support for Pashinyan, who won a landslide victory following the Velvet Revolution in December 2018, began after Armenia’s defeat in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Since then, continued tensions along the border with Azerbaijan in the provinces of Syunik and Gegharkunik have further eroded his support.

Kocharyan announced his comeback to politics in late January, stating his intention to become Armenia’s next Prime Minister. He is heading the Armenia Alliance, which includes the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and two other minor parties.

He previously supported the Homeland Salvation Movement which was formed by a coalition of over a dozen parties, including the former ruling Republican and ARF parties, in their aim to force Pashinyan to resign.

Two of the most recent opinion polls released have predicted vastly different outcomes. An 18 June poll carried out by MPG/GALLUP International has Kocharyan’s Armenia Alliance coalition leading on 27%, with Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party trailing on 25%. One the other hand, according to a 16 June poll published by EVN Report and conducted by the Armenian Election Study, Pashinyan has a lead of almost double that of Kocharyan, with 22% against 12%.

Other parties and electoral blocs running include the current parliamentary opposition, Prosperous Armenia led by Gagik Tsarukyan, one of Armenia”s wealthiest men, and the liberal Bright Armenia Party.

The former ruling Republican Party is running under the I Have Honour Alliance along with former National Security Service chief Artur Vanetsyan and his Homeland Party.

Crowds gather

The issues of security following the war, as well as the country’s economic growth and perceptions of politicised justice, have dominated the campaign.

On the final day of campaigning on Friday, Kocharyan gathered around 30,000 people in Yerevan’s Republic Square, in what was possibly the largest rally in Armenia since the 2018 Revolution. Addressing the gathered crowd Kocharyan said that the country faced the choice between ‘dignified peace and humiliation’.  

‘I am sure you will not be deceived anymore, you will reject lies, ignorance and filth’, he said. 

Kocharyan's pre-election rally on Republic square on 18 June. Photo: Ani Avetisyan/OC Media.

Kocharyan's Armenia alliance promises a 'deeper integration' with Russia and proposes to increase the Russian presence in Armenia. Kocharyan has also floated the idea of an Armenian version of Russia’s Foreign Agent law, with  'strict control' over 'foreign-funded organisations'. 

On Thursday, Pashinyan and his Civil Contract Party held their own rally in Yerevan that also gathered tens of thousands of supporters, though it appears to have been smaller than the rally held by Kocharyan. 

Pashinyan called for the Armenian public to vote for the ‘people’s power’, and stressed the importance of opening transport links between Armenia and Azerbaijan, while insisting that any connection between the Azerbaijani mainland and its exclave of Nakhchivan on Armenian territory would remain Armenia’s sovereign territory.

[Read more: OC Media Is an interconnected Caucasus on the horizon?]

Some observers interpreted the latter comment as a reference to revelations that while serving as president, Kocharyan offered to hand over a land corridor in southern Armenia to Azerbaijan.

Later that day, Pashinyan participated in a TV debate on Public Television with Bright Armenia leader Edmon Marukyan and the leaders of several minor parties. Kocharyan had refused to join the debate, suggesting instead that Pashinyan duel him and that the acting Prime Minister could ‘choose the weapon’. 

On Saturday, when parties were legally forbidden from campaigning, Pashinyan went live on Facebook and called on the public to ‘go to the polls and vote’, adding that police were ‘effectively countering cases of vote-buying’. 

[Read more: Stunts and insults mark first week of campaigning in Armenia]

‘Misuse of Administrative resources’

Reports of the abuse of administrative resources to bring people to Republic Square have also emerged since Pashinyan’s rally. 

On Friday, Armenia’s Human Rights Defender Arman Tatoyan stated that their office had received reports of the ruling party using administrative resources to bring staff of local governments and schools to the rally. 

According to Tatoyan, videos on social media showing patients of the Sevan Mental Health Centre going to the rally in fact showed staff of the facility being brought to Yerevan, not patients.

Employees of ArmEconomBank, which belongs to Civil Contract candidate Khachatur Sukiasyan were also bussed in to the rally, the Human Rights Defender reported. 

Tatoyan also stated that they had recorded the ‘organised attendance’ of employees of Gazprom Armenia, Electric Networks of Armenia, and the Eraz business centre at the pro-Kocharyan rally. 

On Friday, a recording was published online featuring Armen Charchyan, a member of Kocharyan’s alliance and head of the church-led Izmirlyan Hospital, in which he called on the hospital’s staff to participate in the elections and not to vote for Pashinyan. After the recording was made public, Charchyan was detained by police. 

Kocharyan’s supporters and representatives from the Armenian Apostolic Church have called the detention illegal and demanded his release.

According to Armenia’s Investigative Committee, as of Saturday, four criminal cases have been filed for ‘obstruction of the exercise of the right to vote’ including Ruben Khlghatyan, the ex-Mayor of Armavir and a member of the I Have Honour coalition. 

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