Four former leaders of Armenia will vie for power in potentially turbulent parliamentary elections on Sunday, after a hard-fought campaign dominated by fallout from the country’s bitter military defeat last year to neighbouring Azerbaijan.
Acting premier Nikol Pashinyan resigned as prime minister in April and called the snap elections, to end months of political turmoil sparked by the Azeri victory in fierce fighting over the disputed Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Six weeks of war killed more than 5,000 people before a Russian-brokered ceasefire ended the fighting last November and cemented Azerbaijan’s battlefield gains, returning most of Nagorno-Karabakh to Baku’s control more than 25 years after the region was seized by its ethnic Armenian majority.
Critics of Mr Pashinyan accused him of betrayal and treachery for accepting the Azeri return to much of Nagorno-Karabakh, while some of his opponents were arrested for allegedly plotting a coup and an assassination attempt against the ex-journalist, who came to power through peaceful anti-corruption protests in 2018.
Mr Pashinyan also claims that many of his critics have links to the scandal-plagued political old guard that he ousted, and whose graft and incompetence he blamed for leaving Armenia’s military too weak to beat Azeri forces strengthened by Baku’s sizeable energy revenue and strong support from chief ally Turkey.
Polls suggest the strongest challenger to Mr Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party will be a bloc led by Robert Kocharyan, Armenia’s president from 1998-2008.
Supporters attend a campaign rally of Armenia’s prime minister in central Yerevan, on Thursday, three days before Armenians vote in snap parliamentary elections. Photograph: Karen Minasyan/AFP
At a rally this week, Mr Kocharyan said Mr Pashinyan’s mishandling of the war and the economy was fuelling poverty, unemployment and a national sense of insecurity, which were in turn driving large-scale emigration from Armenia.
“They will cause a headache if they remain in parliament in large numbers. So they should be in parliament with as few mandates as possible. It would be best if they weren’t in parliament at all,” Mr Kocharyan said of Civil Contract.
Speaking to supporters in the capital Yerevan, Mr Pashinyan described Sunday’s election as “the moment of truth” when his so-called velvet revolution of 2018 would be superseded by a “steel revolution.”
Mr Pashinyan, who has brandished a hammer at some rallies, urged voters to give him a “steel mandate” with enough power to root out parts of the establishment that he claims are still loyal to the discredited elite embodied by Mr Kocharyan and other former leaders.
He has also vowed to bring home scores of Armenian prisoners of war who are still in Azeri hands, following the return of 15 captives from Baku last week in exchange for a map showing the location of minefields laid by Armenian troops.
“There is no doubt that all our captive brothers will return to the motherland very soon,” Mr Pashinyan declared, amid continuing tension and occasional skirmishes between Armenian and Azeri troops in contested border areas.