Pashinian’s coalition heads for snap election landslide in Armenia

Pashinian’s coalition heads for snap election landslide in Armenia
The optimism generated by the spring's Armenian people power revolution appears to be holding.
By bne IntelliNews December 7, 2018

The My Step Alliance headed by Armenia’s acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has maintained its strong lead in the polls as the December 9 snap election approaches, indicating a radical change in the composition of the country’s next parliament. 

Pashinian, the former anti-corruption activist and protest leader appointed prime minister after the Armenian velvet revolution of April and May, resigned in October to pave the way for fresh elections. He says he wants the parliament to reflect the new political realities of the small, impoverished nation of 2.9mn. 

Attempts by his political rivals to adopt legislation that would block or at least delay the snap election were thwarted when thousands of Pashinian’s supporters gathered outside the parliament immediately after the vote in an echo of the revolutionary events of the spring. His opponents backed down, and Pashinian submitted his resignation on October 16, securing a date for the vote in December. The standoff showed he still commanded support from the street and that is likely to be reflected in the ballot boxes in two days’ time.

Polls indicate his hopes of a starkly different make-up of the parliament will be realised, with a dramatic landslide expected for the My Step Alliance. The relatively few and far between polls from reliable international pollsters in the weeks before the election have consistently indicated the alliance was on track to take more than two-thirds of the vote—far outperforming the result of the Republican Party (HHK), which had dominated Armenian politics for two decades, in the last general election in 2017. 

The latest poll from Gallup International Association, carried out at the beginning of December, showed 69.4% of respondents planned to vote for the My Step Alliance, indicating that the party was holding on to the support it enjoyed in October and November. As in earlier polls, other parties were trailing far behind, with the runner up, the Prosperous Armenia Party on just 5.7% with less than one-tenth of the support enjoyed by the My Step Alliance. The HHK was recording a dismal 1.3%. Confirming how important the election is to most Armenians, 75.5% of respondents said they planned to vote.

Government viewed “very positively”
From a broader perspective, Armenians also have an overwhelmingly positive opinion of the post-revolution change of government. A poll by the International Republican Institute's (IRI's) Center for Insights in Survey Research published in November showed that of the 1,200 permanent residents of Armenia interviewed by the IRI in July and August, a combined 82% viewed the new government “very positively” (39%) or “somewhat positively” (43%).

The poll, funded by the US Agency for International Development, also revealed continued backing for reform: 63% of respondents said they wanted reform, including 34% who desired to see political reform undertaken quickly, while a further 24% preferred a “more gradual than not” approach and 10% wanted a “definitely gradual” transformation.

“If opinion polling is even close to being correct, the My Step Alliance will likely command a large majority in the National Assembly after the election,” Fitch Solutions analysts wrote in a comment on December 5. 

This would make a big different to Pashinian when embarking on his agenda of substantial political change. The protests this spring were sparked by the move of outgoing president Serzh Sargsyan to the newly empowered prime minister position but also stemmed from deep-rooted discontent over the high levels of corruption in the country, as well as cronyism, inequality, poverty and low living standards. 

While Pashinian started initiating changes as prime minister, he was hampered by his relatively weak position in parliament; his alliance had only nine seats in the just dissolved parliament and he had to manage to rule with the support of the Tsarukyan Alliance and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF). 

By contrast, the HHK still dominated the 105-seat chamber with 50 MPs, while those of its ally, the Prosperous Armenia Party, brought its total to 88. However, since the HHK is now polling at less than 2%, the chances are that it will be virtually wiped out in the Sunday election. 

A different environment 
Early reports from election observers also indicate a different campaigning environment from that before previous elections. On November 28, the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission published a largely uncritical interim report, which contrasted strongly with the interim report issued ahead of the 2017 general election when the organisation detailed widespread allegations of vote-buying and “a prevalent perception that pressure and intimidation will occur during the campaign”. 

This time around, probably the OSCE/ODHIR’s most negative comment has concerned the public discourse in the country. It noted: “Some ODIHR EOM interlocutors noted improvements but characterised the public discourse as not conducive to criticism of the acting government, particularly the prime minister.”

Overall, however, it described a “diverse” media environment, even though “many outlets are perceived as politically affiliated, including the public television”. 

The campaign has also been characterised by politicians led by Pashinian reaching out directly to the people. As OSCE/ODIHR observers pointed out, the significance of social networks as platforms for political information in Armenia today has increased greatly. As well as mass campaign rallies, Pashinian is known for reaching out directly to the people via video addresses posted on Facebook, bypassing the traditional media, and this approach is increasingly favoured by other politicians as well.

Changing priorities
With Pashinian’s bloc virtually assured of a decisive victory, attention is turning to his post-election plans. Fitch Solutions analysts talks of a “widespread shift in policy” but anticipate that this will be concentrated “on the domestic front” rather than in the country’s international position, in particular its critical strategic relationship with regional big power Russia, which maintains military bases in Armenia. 

As the IRI poll showed, among Armenians who view Pashinian’s government positively, the top reason given was that it had decreased corruption, followed by “brought democracy” and a more general “improved psychological state of the people”. First the head of the territorial administration ministry’s migration service and later Pashinian highlighted the reversal in emigration from the country in the months since the people’s revolution, though it is too soon to tell whether the changes will have a lasting impact on Armenia’s demographic crisis. The Armenian diaspora numbers some eight million people by some estimates, far exceeding the population of the homeland.

Yerevan’s relationship with Moscow, meanwhile, has proved a vexed question ever since Pashinian came to power, with Russia in late October accusing the US of making a barely disguised attempt to shift Armenia’s allegiances away from its traditional ally. Reflecting the importance of the relationship — especially in the context of Armenia’s hostile relations with its immediate neighbours Armenia and Turkey—Pashinian’s first trip as prime minister was to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pashinian also back-pedalled on statements he made as opposition leader such as previous calls for Armenia’s withdrawal from the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.

“[G]iven that almost all of the country's energy is provided by Russian oil and gas, we believe it unlikely that Yerevan would seek to enact a major shift in relations with Russia’s Putin administration,” Fitch analysts write. However, there have been hints that Moscow is less than happy with the new Armenian government’s crackdown on corruption and plans to end the dominance of big monopoly players on the small local market. Other tensions with the Kremlin have been felt over the prosecution of some of the old guard, among them the head of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) Yuri Khachaturov and former Armenian president Robert Kocharyan, who have longstanding relations with Moscow. 

In the election campaign, Republican Party figures have sought to attack Pashinian over his crackdown on officials from previous administrations. This sparked one of the most virulent exchanges of the December 5 televised debate between the leaders of all 11 parties and alliances contesting the election—an event that was a first for Armenia. However, the poor showing of the Republicans in the polls indicates that the objections to the prosecutions have not struck a chord with many in the country. 

In another sign of the shift in political priorities, Pashinian’s government has made fighting corruption and improving Armenia’s socio-economic situation a higher priority the longstanding conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh breakaway territory controlled by ethnic Armenians.

“There has been some indication that a majority My Step government could see a mild cooling in relations between Yerevan and the regional government of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh,” wrote Fitch analysts. They point to Pashinian’s comment at a rally in November that “the success of the people’s protests this spring was more important than the Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] liberation war”. The ensuing war of words highlighted “the tensions between the 'new politics' of My Step, more focused on democratic rights and political freedoms, and the 'old politics', focused on national security and sovereignty.”