YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — Campaigning officially kicked off on Monday for Armenia’s snap parliamentary elections which Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and his political allies are expected to win by a landslide.
Two alliances, including Pashinian’s My Step bloc, and nine political parties are vying for at least 101 seats in the Armenian parliament that will elect the next prime minister, the country’s most powerful official.
The pre-term elections result from this spring’s mass protests that brought down Armenia’s longtime leader Serzh Sarkisian. They will be held on December 9 under a complicated system of proportional representation. Armenians will vote for not only parties and blocs as a whole but also their individual candidates running in a dozen nationwide constituencies.
Under Armenian law, a political party needs to win at least 5 percent of the vote in order to be represented in the National Assembly. The vote threshold for blocs is set at 7 percent.
Pashinian reiterated his pledges to ensure that the elections are the most democratic in Armenia’s history when he formally launched his election campaign in the northwestern Shirak province.
“From now on, every time you decide to do a revolution you can do it with a single ballot,” he told supporters at a rally held in the town of Talin. “Why did the [spring] revolution take place? Because the people were denied a chance to form a government through elections, because your votes were stolen, because your choice was distorted through voter bribes, threats and various irregularities.”
My Step is widely regarded as the election favorite. Most of its 183 election candidates are members of the Pashinian-led Civil Contract party. The bloc’s electoral list also includes non-partisan civic activists and other public figures allied to the popular premier.
Civil Contract until recently made up the Yelk alliance together with two other parties, Republic and Bright Armenia. They decided to participate in the upcoming elections separately. Republic joined forces with another small pro-Western party earlier this month.
Among other election contenders are businessman Gagik Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). The BHK finished second in all legislative elections held in the past decade.
Tsarukian held no public gatherings on the first day of the election campaign, leaving it to two other senior party figures, Mikael Melkumian and Gevorg Petrosian, to present the BHK’s election manifesto to journalists. They said the tycoon will start campaigning for the elections on Tuesday in the central Kotayk province, his traditional stronghold.
Both men declined to comment on their party’s electoral chances. “Until the people speak up [on election day] we have no right to distribute roles and determine our seats [in the new parliament,]” explained Petrosian.
The former ruling HHK, meanwhile, started its campaign with a news conference held in Yerevan by two of its leading members, Armen Ashotian and Arpine Hovannisian.
Ashotian expressed confidence that his party will be represented in the new National Assembly despite what he described as an atmosphere of fear. He claimed that scores of HHK supporters are wary of expressing their political views for fear of losing their jobs and being bullied by Pashinian loyalists.
“These people are numerous, and a big surprise will await Nikol Pashinian and his political tem late on December 9,” declared Ashotian.
The HHK won the last parliamentary elections held in April 2017 amid opposition allegations of vote buying and voter intimidation. It is now trying to position itself as the sole truly opposition force capable of holding the new government in check.
Former President Sarkisian’s name is absent from the HHK’s list of candidates which is topped by his longtime protégé, former Defense Minister Vigen Sargsian. Also noteworthy is a lack of wealthy businessmen among those candidates. They strongly contributed to the party’s past electoral successes.
Campaigning in Shirak, Pashinian branded the HHK as a “criminal group that plundered the country for more than 20 years.” The upcoming elections, he said, must “formalize the political death of the Republican plunderers.”
Pashinian was accused by the HHK of abusing his powers for electoral purposes after holding rallies during working visits to two other provinces last week. The HHK and other critics noted that the rallies were held before the official start of the campaign. The prime minister insisted that he did not break any Armenian laws.
Pashinian announced late on Sunday that he is taking a ten-day vacation in order to concentrate on the parliamentary race. Armenia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Ararat Mirzoyan said afterwards that he will substitute for the premier until December 6.
Ashotian criticized Pashinian’s unpaid leave, while calling it a response to the HHK criticism. He said Armenia is faced with grave economic and security challenges that require constant attention from the head of its government.
“Dear Mr. Pashinian, why did you leave [the post of prime minister] and go [on vacation?] You were going to win anyway,” added the top Sarkisian ally.