Armenia goes to the polls on Sunday for early elections called by its prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, and against the backdrop of its military defeat to Azerbaijan in 2020.
Pashinyan, who led the so-called Velvet Revolution against Armenia’s ruling oligarchy in 2018, is now fighting for his political life after Azerbaijan won back control of the contested region of Nagorno Karabakh in a six-week war that ended with a Russia-brokered ceasefire in November.
As part of the deal, Armenia agreed to cede territory that the country had captured from Azerbaijan in 1994 and the defeat has led to street protests and calls for Pashinian, a 46-year-old former journalist and protest leader, to resign.
Pashinyan chose instead to gamble on new parliamentary elections just months after the end of the conflict, in which nearly 6,000 were killed. He is facing opposition from representatives of the Armenian military elite and is hoping a good showing on Sunday will counter the opposition.
His Civil Contract party, which has taken on Armenia’s entrenched political and economic elites over the past three years, faces the opposition led by Robert Kocharian, a former president that has branded Pashinian a “loser” and accused him of cowardice for ending the war.
A survey by the MPG Institute puts the two parties neck and neck, at 24% of the vote. Pashinian wants to achieve a result closer to 60% to give him the mandate to remain in office.
Pashinyan has called it a “mandate of steel” and has hammered the point home by actually brandishing a hammer during speeches.
One of his opponents is the man that he played a role in ousting in 2018, Serzh Sargsyan, who served as either prime minister or president for a decade from 2008 and in 2015 amended the constitution so that he could continue to lead Armenia despite restrictions on term limits.
Kocharian also ran Armenia for a decade, between 1997 and 2008.
Around 2.6 million of Armenia’s 2.9 million people are registered to vote on Sunday and they will elect 101 deputies out of a record 22 parties, divided into four electoral blocs. If a governing majority is not won, a second-round between the two biggest parties will be held in July.
Unsurprisingly the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh — which lies within Azerbaijan but was under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia — has dominated the campaigns of all the parties, and tensions remain high.
Coupled with the aggressive language of all three major leaders — Sargsyan has called on his supporters to combat Pashinian’s hammer with “clubs” — the legacy of the conflict has raised fears that a close result could see post-election violence.
“The risk of street clashes is quite high after a vote preceded by such an aggressive campaign,” regrets political analyst Viguen Hakobian.