By Maxim Edwards
“Who will we vote for? Nikol Pashinyan, of course!” said Karen Karapetyan and Aghavni Tovmasyan, incredulous. This couple in their thirties arrived at a polling station here last Sunday to vote in snap parliamentary elections. Their candidate won by a landslide: the My Step Alliance, in which Pashinyan’s Civil Contract is the leading party, took 70.5 percent of the vote. “Mighty, mighty, mighty people!” wrote Pashinyan on his Facebook page the morning after the results. “I love you all, I’m proud of you, I bow before you.”
Pashinyan was swept to power on a platform of combating corruption, widespread poverty, and unemployment. All those problems are on show in this town of 18,000 in the shadow of Mount Ararat. Locals in Masis work in agriculture or two large tobacco factories; most of the town’s industry was shuttered after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Places like Masis thirst for change. And there’s no disputing that Pashinyan has brought it: The meteoric rise of the 43-year-old journalist turned opposition politician seemed unprecedented until this spring. When longtime president Serzh Sargsyan attempted to switch positions into the newly empowered prime minister’s office, thousands of Armenians took to the streets in protest. After a tense standoff, Sargsyan resigned and Pashinyan became acting prime minister in May. The peaceful overthrow of the ancien régime became known as Armenia’s Velvet Revolution.
The mood in Yerevan remains high, as do hopes for the future. But for several months after the revolution, Pashinyan had to contend with a parliament dominated by the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), led by the ousted Sargsyan. Sunday’s vote changed all that, solidifying the change of power during the revolution and consolidating the strong popular mandate Pashinyan enjoys (an opinion poll taken by the International Republican Institute in October gave the prime minister an approval rating of 82 percent.)
But while he is increasingly seen as such, Pashinyan was not the only face of the protests in April and May; leftists, social democrats, and nationalists of many stripes took to the streets alongside his movement. “This election was really about the opposition,” remarked Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Caucasus Institute, a Yerevan-based think tank. “It was obvious that Civil Contract would get most of the votes, most probably a large majority.” The Karapetyans in Masis said while they voted for Nikol, they hoped to see the other parties enter parliament “so he rules better. It’s important that he has opponents.”
Amendments to the country’s constitution from 2015 ensured that he will: even in landslides such as this, the opposition is collectively ensured a third of all parliamentary seats. Besides the My Step Alliance, just two of the 11 parties on the ballot papers cleared the 5 percent threshold to win those seats: Bright Armenia, a liberal pro-European party and former coalition partner of Pashinyan’s party, took 6 percent of the vote. Prosperous Armenia, headed by Armenia’s most influential tycoon Gagik Tsarukyan, took 8 percent.
But by far the biggest upset on Sunday was that the RPA, which dominated Armenian politics since 1999, failed to clear the 5 percent threshold required to win parliamentary seats, losing all the 58 they previously held. Election observers voiced concern over “a wave of hate speech” they say Pashinyan provoked toward the RPA in the run-up to the vote.
While election observers praised the elections as free and fair, the turnout was unexpectedly low, at 49 percent (compared to over 60 percent in parliamentary elections last April). “The low turnout can be explained by the fact that people weren’t driven to polling stations in buses [carousel voting]. There was no coercion, but people also weren’t paid money to vote anymore,” said Iskandaryan. “I also suspect that compared to last year, everybody had a clear idea of who would win; voters may have felt that if there’s no fight, what’s the point of voting?”
With the RPA absent, there is now no force in Armenia’s parliament which does not fundamentally support the overthrow of the Sargsyan government in May. Word in Yerevan is that while counterrevolution once seemed a distant possibility, it has become an impossibility. “It was remarkable,” said Arsen Gasparyan, senior advisor to Pashinyan, of the RPA’s failure to enter parliament. “A political party which basically ran this country for 20 years doesn’t have the capability to get 5 percent. We all know that previous elections had irregularities, but we’re not talking about 20 or 30 percent, we’re talking about 5 percent for a party which had a parliamentary majority. Many people still don’t understand it.”
Yet Anahit Shirinyan, a Chatham House academy fellow specializing in Armenian politics, sees no mystery in the RPA’s banishment from parliamentary politics. “The overwhelming majority of Armenian citizens rejected not just Serzh Sargsyan, but also his party, and that system,” she explained. “The Republican Party is associated with carrying out one-party rule for years, and by extension all the socioeconomic problems Armenians are dealing with today.”
In its election platform, the RPA conceded that mistakes had been made under the Sargsyan regime. “The price of a mistake in politics is a loss of power, and we have paid that price,” began their statement. “We know and have accepted our mistakes, but our actions have been unjustly smeared.” When asked what those mistakes were, the RPA’s leading candidate on the party list, Vigen Sargsyan, explained that “it was the usual problem of any party which is in government for too long: There’s too much bureaucracy, and you lose contact with your grassroots. They become echoes rather than voices.” Sargsyan, a former defense minister, added that the party manifesto contained “a whole list of mistakes.”