Armenia’s snap election was extraordinary in many ways. A record number of parties and blocs contested the ballot – including all of Armenia’s former presidents dating back to 1991. After a bitter campaign, the scale of Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party’s win came as a surprise, with Civil Contract securing an outright 54 per cent of the vote – a majority obviating the need for tense coalition negotiations or a second round of voting.
Although the presence of old faces seemed to preserve the polarity between new and old elites, which was key to 2018’s Velvet Revolution that brought Pashinyan to power, the grand coalition that made the revolution possible had begun to fray.
This fragility is largely due to Armenia’s calamitous defeat in the 2020 Nagorny Karabakh war, which dramatically exposed Armenia’s vulnerabilities as around 4,000 Armenians were killed in action and Armenian forces lost control over most of the territories they had won from Azerbaijan back in the 1990s.
After signing a ceasefire many in Armenia saw as capitulatory, calls for Pashinyan to resign quickly ensued. But the country’s deeply unpopular opposition baulked at his initial offer of elections in December 2020 and a new election was only finally agreed following public recriminations over responsibility for the defeat in Karabakh between Pashinyan and the army’s General Staff.
A competitive and unpredictable election
Beyond the Karabakh catastrophe, Pashinyan’s populistic style and personalized decision-making has alienated a wide variety of actors from state officials – notably the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stricken since May by the resignation of the minister and all his deputies, to the army, and parts of Armenia’s vibrant civil society.
The principal beneficiary of Pashinyan’s declining popularity was Robert Kocharian, Armenia’s president from 1998 to 2008. A native of Nagorny Karabakh, Kocharian led the territory’s local administration during the first Karabakh war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. Shored up by his wartime credentials, Kocharian led the ‘Armenia Alliance’ bloc, running a campaign focused on security and pledging to contain the influence of Western-funded civil society, including through the adoption of a Russia-style ‘foreign agents’ law.
The choice presented to the Armenian electorate was effectively between an inexperienced and populistic democracy which had overseen a catastrophic military defeat, and the restoration of its authoritarian predecessor whose long-term strategic calculus many consider to be a core factor making that defeat possible. Unsurprisingly, pre-election polling indicated a high degree of apathy and undecidedness in the electorate, making the outcome uncertain – which is far from a given in Eurasian elections.
Most observers anticipated Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party would win more votes than anyone else, but few cases spring to mind where a leader has won such a decisive electoral victory in the wake of a decisive military defeat.
With a two-thirds majority in Armenia’s National Assembly, Civil Contract remains the dominant power. Yet in the context of Armenia’s post-Soviet regime trajectory, the results are perhaps less surprising.
The problem, from the electorate’s perspective, was the opposition. Kocharian’s Armenia Alliance came a distant second with 21 per cent, while ‘I Have Honor’, a third bloc managed by Serzh Sargsyan – Armenia’s last president ousted in 2018 by the Velvet Revolution – came in third with just more than five per cent.
As a presidential candidate in the past, Kocharian never won a first-round election, only winning in the second rounds of polls in 1998 and 2003 which were deemed flawed by international observers. And his rule is associated in Armenia with corruption and the worst post-electoral violence in the post-Soviet South Caucasus, when ten people died as opposition protests were put down in March 2008.
Ironically it is Pashinyan’s own efforts since 2018 to bring Kocharian to justice for those events which were instrumental to the latter’s political reinvention after a lengthy absence from Armenian politics. After a prolonged and sensational trial, these efforts failed as Kocharian was finally acquitted in April.
The election result can therefore be read less as a resounding mandate for Pashinyan, and more as a resounding rejection of his authoritarian predecessors, their supporters in diaspora, and leftover oligarchs from the pre-Velvet Revolution era.
Although Armenia Alliance says it intends to contest the result, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s monitoring mission, as well as other observers, positively assessed the electoral administration, polling day, and the count, while noting inflammatory rhetoric and a polarized campaign as the main shortcomings.
Armenia’s battered institutions
The real winners in the election are Armenia’s battered institutions which, so far, have managed to both contain the extraordinary polarity of this post-war moment and keep the peace. This has been possible largely because Armenia’s regime politics presents a hostile environment for stable authoritarianism.
Armenia’s political culture is – and will remain – fractured among a multitude of perspectives resistant to political homogenization, is free of the resource curse enabling sustained and systemic authoritarian patronage, and has a civil society which is diverse and rooted in diasporic networks beyond geo-politicized sources of aid and development assistance. Accommodating such diversity in a grand and progressive coalition was the premise of the Velvet Revolution.
But for Armenia’s transition to stay on track the Civil Contract party needs to resist the temptations of dominant power politics. Its new mandate is unmoderated by Armenia’s smaller parties, votes for which have been lost to the five per cent threshold for representation in parliament. During his campaign Pashinyan worryingly pledged that the velvet texture of Armenia’s transition would change to steel if he won, suggesting an era of renewed vendettas and personal rivalries.
Securing the aims of the Velvet Revolution long-term depends on transitioning from the fray of campaigning – which is Pashinyan’s natural comfort zone – to the development of a constitutional state and a statecraft to match. The electoral rejection of Armenia’s pantheon of post-Soviet strongmen and potentates shows this is what most Armenian voters want to see.