- Early parliamentary elections on 20 June amount to a referendum on which political party can avenge the losses suffered during a six-week war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in autumn 2020.
- The vote will see a tight battle between the ruling Civil Contract Party (KP) led by acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the newly-formed Armenia Alliance (HD) headed by former president Robert Kocharyan.
- Kocharyan’s victory would likely exacerbate political and military tensions with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Following changes to the electoral system introduced in April, at least 101 members of parliament will be elected for a five-year term under a closed-list proportional system in one countrywide constituency. Twenty-one political parties and four electoral alliances have been registered to participate in the vote. To enter parliament, individual parties have to pass the threshold of 5%, while the bar for electoral alliances of two or more parties is 7%. Only the ruling KP party and two alliances – HD and I Have Honor (HHK) – have been polling above their respective electoral thresholds.
Armenia Alliance surging in polls
Pashinyan agreed to call early elections following a series of large anti- government protests galvanized by the ceasefire agreement with Azerbaijan over Nagrono-Karabakh brokered by Russia in November 2020. The opposition – including every single president of the country since 1991 – accuses Pashinyan of agreeing to unfavorable terms of the ceasefire, which require Yerevan to make a number of concessions to Baku, such as acknowledging the loss of substantial territory in Nagorno-Karabakh and providing a guarantee for Azerbaijani transit into the exclave across Armenian territory.
At the pre-election rallies, Pashinyan has attempted to burnish his nationalist credentials by holding rallies alongside the handover of Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) and presenting himself as the only reasonable candidate who can ensure that Armenia is treated fairly under the terms of the ceasefire. But with more than 180 POWs still in Azerbaijani custody, Pashinyan has been accused of being far too conciliatory towards Azerbaijan. For example, to guarantee the return of 15 POWs, Pashinyan last week handed over the country’s greatest bargaining chip: a map of land mines in Nagorno- Karabakh’s territory held by Azerbaijan.
Pashinyan’s greatest challenger in the upcoming vote is former president Kocharyan, who has returned to politics with the newly formed HD alliance, consisting of the extreme nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation as well as another political newcomer, the Reborn Armenia Party. HD has been rapidly gaining popularity, with the latest polling data showing that it is virtually on par with Pashinyan’s KP. These rapidly changing voter political preferences suggest that HD has a slight edge. Also, it may hold better chances of forming a coalition government with HHK, which is polling third. With the war with Azerbaijan so fresh in the public’s mind, it is likely that the next government will be formed by a native of Nagorno-Karabakh or a veteran of the 1990s war (won by Armenia), pointing to former presidents Kocharyan or Serzh Sargsyan (HHK) as the most likely candidates to unseat Pashinyan.
Highly combative pre-election rhetoric and an atmosphere of increased militarism suggest that public protests and elevated political tensions are likely to persist after the vote. Even prior to the outbreak of the 2020 war with Azerbaijan, Armenian politics had been plagued by instability in the judicial system and the high-profile public trials of both Kocharyan and the nephew of Sargsyan. Regardless of which party/alliance succeeds in forming the next government, reprisals against political opponents are likely to continue.
The Kocharyan-led government would likely seek to reinforce Armenia’s military presence near Nagorno-Karabakh and could even withdraw from the ceasefire agreement. In this case, political and military tensions with Azerbaijan would surge, particularly as the number of ceasefire violations has already been on the rise in recent weeks. Also, Kocharyan would likely seek to develop closer ties with Russia. While the current ceasefire agreement contains a vague mandate for 2,000 Russian military personnel to be stationed in Nagorno- Karabakh until 2025, Kocharyan has called for an indefinite mandate, effectively guaranteeing Moscow a long-term military base in the region. Finally, Kocharyan’s victory would likely lead to greater tensions with Turkey, which has lobbied to be included in peace talks between Yerevan and Baku.
If, nonetheless, Pashinyan manages to remain in office after the vote, he would likely continue to pursue a more balanced approach with regards to Nagorno-Karabakh and relations with Russia. Pashinyan’s recent agreements with Baku on the release of Armenian POWs underline his inclination towards negotiations and compromise. However, domestic rivalries would likely escalate as Pashinyan has promised “political vendettas” against his opponents. At the same time, the incumbent would likely have to cope with renewed public protests against his rule.