Armenia PM wins majority in polls despite anger over war

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on Monday scored a decisive victory in snap parliamentary elections, bolstering his rule after months of discontent and protests following a military defeat to Azerbaijan.

Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party swept to victory with nearly 54 percent of the Sunday vote, overcoming anger at his handling of the devastating fight for control of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region to secure a strong majority.

“The people of Armenia gave our Civil Contract party a mandate to lead the country and personally to me to lead the country as prime minister,” Pashinyan, 46, said in the early hours of Monday after preliminary results were announced.

He urged supporters to flood the main square in the capital Yerevan for an evening rally to celebrate the victory.

Pashinyan announced the gamble of snap polls earlier in the year, when protests against his rule were coming to a head, and after he claimed he had fended off a coup attempt from military leaders.

Those rallies and calls from the opposition for Pashinyan’s resignation began last November when he signed an unpopular peace deal mediated by Moscow to end fighting with Armenia’s long-standing enemy Azerbaijan.

The two countries fought a vicious six-week war last year which claimed some 6,500 lives and saw Armenia hand over swathes of territory in and around Karabakh to Azerbaijan.

On Monday morning, the prime minister visited a military cemetery and laid flowers at the graves of soldiers.

Sunday’s vote was seen as a two-horse race between Pashinyan and his main rival Robert Kocharyan, who led Armenia between 1998 and 2008 and is seen as close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

– ‘An honest leader’ –

Analysts said many Armenians had cast their ballots for the prime minister because they dreaded the return of old elites, a sentiment echoed on the streets of Yerevan.

“People want to have an honest leader who does not steal and is not an oligarch,” said Ruben Kazaryan, a 60-year-old IT worker. 

In the wake of the polls, Kocharyan, whose alliance received 21 percent of the vote, alleged foul play.

“Hundreds of signals from polling stations testifying to organised and planned falsifications serve as a serious reason for lack of trust” in the results, Kocharyan’s Armenia Alliance said in a statement.

The alliance said it would not recognise results until “violations” were studied.

However election observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe praised the polls as “competitive and well-run” and said that vote counting was “highly transparent.”

“The fundamental freedoms key to democratic elections were generally respected,” OSCE monitors said in a statement. 

Armenia’s general prosecutor’s office said by Sunday evening it had received 319 reports of violations.

Kocharyan was himself accused of rigging a presidential election in favour of an ally and presiding over a deadly crackdown on protesters in 2008.

In 2018, Armenia won international praise for holding the country’s first free and fair vote under Pashinyan.

OSCE observers did however point to “intense polarisation” in Armenia’s political landscape, saying the race was “marred by increasingly inflammatory language from key contestants”.

During a venomous campaign, the candidates exchanged insults and threats. Pashinyan brandished a hammer at rallies, while Kocharyan said he was ready to fight the prime minister in a duel.

Despite stifling heat, nearly 50 percent of around 2.6 million eligible voters cast their ballots.

The vote was followed by Armenia’s Soviet-era master Russia, arch-foe Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey, which was seen as a key backer of Baku in the war over Karabakh.

Pashinyan, who had spent time in jail as an opposition politician, was celebrated as a hero when he swept to power in a peaceful revolution in 2018.

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