As a result of Armenia's 20 June early parliamentary election, the incumbent government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was able to secure fresh mandate, winning almost 54 percent of the vote and garnering a working majority stemming from his 71 seats in the newly elected parliament.
Yet it is now clear that for Pashinyan, forcing the former corrupt authoritarian regime from power was far easier than actually governing the country. But this election was very much a stark choice between the past and the future.
But 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. And as an opening round in this campaign contest, the election itself was also defined by a distressing and destructive discourse, with a poverty of ideas. Although the election was able to repeat the 2018 achievement of a truly free and fair contest, the political discourse of personal hatred and anger only undermined democracy in Armenia. 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 the Pashinyan government.
The Deeper Context
The impressive achievements of Armenian Prime Minster Nikol Pashinyan in leading a non-violent change of government in the so-called “Velvet revolution” of 2018 are undeniable. Yet it is now clear that for Pashinyan, forcing the former corrupt authoritarian regime from power was far easier than actually governing the country. But this election was very much a stark choice between the past and the future. The opposition, largely comprised of elements of the former system, offered a return to the past, with an appeal for “strongman” leadership and autocratic rule. The Pashinyan government was running on a platform of promise for the future, emphasizing democracy and anti-corruption.
Reflecting the “Jurassic Park” condition of Armenian politics, the dinosaurs of the past are led by former President Robert Kocharian. And as a last chance attempt at a comeback, it is Kocharian who has emerged as the primary challenger to Pashinyan. Although Kocharian has never won a free and fair election, coming to power by force based only on “fixing” elections in his favor, Kocharian poses a serious challenge to the future of a democratic, modern and peaceful Armenia.
At the same time, as demonstrated by the vicious and vindicative political discourse, the Armenian Prime Minster, Nikol Pashinyan, has exceeded all normal limits and surpassed all natural expectations for his impulsive and reckless rhetoric by invoking threats and aggressive speeches. More broadly, there was little content and even less substance in the “programs” of either Pashinyan or Kocharian. The campaign has been vicious and vindicative, with little more than a trading of accusation and personal attacks.
From that perspective, 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. At the same time, the intellectual poverty of inspiring political leaders or parties, and even less of a choice of policy options, deprives the country of more constructive political discourse and debate. And the Armenian voter clearly deserves better from both the government and the opposition.
Security as the Dominant Issue
After the unexpected scale of loss in the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh, it is only natural that post-war security is the central element of this election. But as natural as that observation may be, it is both destructive and deplorable, as this campaign ignores other critical issues. For example, this dominance of security as the main election theme only deepens the threat of Armenia’s over-dependence on Russia and deprives the voter of choice of policies. In this way, the election was marked by a poverty of ideas, with a confrontation of political personalities rather than a competition of policy alternatives. And this only suggests that the political polarization and politics of confrontation in Armenia are only likely to continue for some time to come.
(Richard Giragosian is the Director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent “think tank” in Yerevan, Armenia)