The first week of official campaigning for Armenia’s 20 June parliamentary election was heavy on personal insults, violent rhetoric, and mutual recriminations — with little about actual policy.
Three years after the Velvet Revolution, Armenians are going to their third parliamentary election in the past five years, possibly the most competitive and consequential in the country’s history.
The official election campaign period began on June 7 and quickly devolved as with calls for ‘political vendettas’, accusations of ‘alcoholism’, and the waving of hammers.
With few exceptions, candidates shied away from any substantive discussion over the myriad of questions facing post-war Armenia — a country that lost roughly 4,000 lives in the war, over 4,000 to COVID and is in what may be the biggest institutional crisis since independence. All of this has also been compounded by an ongoing effort to secure the release of POWs and a crisis around border delimitation with Azerbaijan.
A personal exchange
The first day of campaigning was dominated by the question of security on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and POWs still held by Azerbaijan. Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan did not take long to arouse the ire of his opponents by announcing that the captured soldiers — who, according to Human Rights Watch, have been subject to cruel and degrading treatment and torture in Azerbaijan — would ‘forgive [his government] for being held captive for two or three months’.
The following day, former Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who was deposed in the 2018 revolution and is associated with the I Have Honour Alliance opposition electoral coalition, called on Pashinyan to exchange his son for ‘20 to 25 POWs’.
Pashinyan hit back at Sargsyan, stating that he ‘officially declares’ that he is willing to make the trade and is willing to give his son in exchange for ‘all the captives’. He added that he had instructed the ‘relevant state bodies’ to pass his offer to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Pashinyan’s 21-year-old son, Ashot Pashinyan, also announced he supported the exchange.
The Azerbaijani President did not officially comment on the offer.
On 12 June, Azerbaijan released 15 POWs in return for a map of over 100,000 landmines laid in the Aghdam district of Azerbaijan, on territory formerly controlled by Armenian forces prior to the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.
The number of remaining Armenian POWs in Azerbaijan is disputed. According to Armenian officials, as of February, the Azerbaijani government held up to 240 POWs and detainees. Prior to this latest exchange, Azerbaijani officials have stated they hold in captivity approximately 60 people, who they consider terrorism suspects.
‘Trojan horses’ and ‘mental problems’
While subject to withering attacks from his opponents, Pashinyan also has not hesitated to attack his opponents. During a 8 June speech, the acting Prime Minister promised a ‘staff massacre’ after the election, so as to rid the government apparatus of ‘Trojan horses’.
‘The heads of institutions who have coerced their employees [to go to rallies or vote] in any way will be subjected to the most brutal, but political, vendettas’, Pashinyan said, adding that it was ‘not about a physical vendetta’ but a ‘political and civil one’.
On 13 June, Pashinyan revealed a new election prop at a rally, a hammer gifted to him by one of his supporters. ‘With this [steel] mandate I will come after you’, he said at a rally.
Meanwhile, during a 9 June rally in Yerevan, Vahe Hakobyan of the Armenia Alliance coalition — led by its candidate for Prime Minister, Armenia’s Second President Robert Kocharyan — has said that the party would 'cure' Pashinyan of ‘alcoholism’ and 'mental problems' and then will 'judge him'. Hakobyan did not expand on what the ‘judgement’ would entail.
A few days earlier, on 5 June, Kocharyan responded to Pashinyan’s call for a debate by stating that while he refuses to debate Pashinyan, he would accept a duel ‘with any type of weapon’.
‘The contest has already been marked by a particularly vindictive and vitriolic first week of campaigning, based more on a heated confrontation of personalities than any real competition of policies,’ Richard Giragosian, an analyst and the Director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), a Yerevan-based think tank, told OC Media.
‘The political discourse of personal hatred and anger only undermines democracy in Armenia’, Giragosian said. ‘Nevertheless, although post-war politics remain poisonous and polarized, this election does offer an important way to overcome the political stalemate and provide a rare degree of legitimacy to whoever wins.’