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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Assessing Armenia’s post-war election

Against a backdrop of profound political polarization and deep division, Armenian voters went to the polls on June 20 to elect a new parliament.  With the return of former President Robert Kocharian as the frontrunner of the opposition’s attempt to unseat Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the election was very much defined by a contest of personalities rather than any real competition of policies.  For the Armenian electorate, it was also a choice between an appeal to the authoritarian “strong man” leadership of the past, as embodied by Kocharian and the opposition, versus continued confidence in the democratic reforms of the Pashinyan government.  

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Yet, despite expectations for an especially close and competitive contest, most observers were surprised by the depth and degree of victory for the incumbent government, however.  An additional surprise was seen in both the over-confidence of the opposition and the over-stated vulnerability of the government.  

But such surprise was justified, as this was an early election conducted in a delicate and difficult period of post-war uncertainty and instability.  The Pashinyan government was facing a contest in unchartered political territory, as the unexpected defeat in the 44-war for Nagorno Karabakh with neighboring Azerbaijan in late 2020 only deepened expectations of the defeat and demise of Pashinyan and his government.  

An Extraordinary Election in Many Ways

This early election was extraordinary for several reasons well beyond its timing.  First, this contest represented a desperate attempt at a political comeback by the “old guard” of Armenian politics.  Since the ascendence of Pashinyan to power as the leader of a rare victory of non-violent “people power” in the country’s “Velvet Revolution” of 2018, a large and disparate segment of former officials and ousted political leaders coalesced around their opposition to an embattled Pashinyan government.  

But in a combination of political arrogance and personal argument, the opposition camp was dangerously divided into four competing parties and factions, with three former Armenian presidents competing against each other as much as challenging the government.  In fact, this personality-driven fragmentation of the opposition only diluted and divided the anti-government electorate.  And with former presidents Levon Ter Petrosian, Serzh Sarsgyan and Kocharian failing to unite or even cooperate, the opposition only magnified its own weak appeal and discredited standing.

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The election was also significant for a second reason, rooted in the fact that this free and fair election was not only a back-to-back achievement that further built on the impressive election of 2018, but was also the source for a rare degree of legitimacy, which stands out as an especially rare commodity in the South Caucasus. 

As an example of renewed legitimacy, the election was further able to demonstrate that political stability and democratic resiliency was able to overcome post-war insecurity in Armenia.  In this context, the reelection of Pashinyan and his party was more than simply a fresh mandate for the incumbent, but also a vindication and victory of Armenia’s institutional democracy.

Challenges Remain

Beyond the immediate democratic dividends from this post-war election, challenges and concerns remain.  More specifically, as important as this free and fair election was, it is not enough to resolve the deeper deficiencies and shortcomings impeding the system of governance in Armenia.  For one, political polarization is only likely to linger, with the parliament as the new arena for confrontation between the small opposition and the government.  This also suggests an obstructionist partisan strategy by the opposition to only sustain its challenge and seek to undermine the government and any and all elements of its legislative program.

At the same time, another critical concern stems from the dangerous temptation of the reelected Pashinyan government to seek revenge or retribution, which would offer a particularly destructive and divisive period of “vendetta politics.”  Such a scenario is also compounded by Pashinyan’s record of an emotional, impulsive and reckless style of leadership, which also does little to inspire confidence in his capacity for concession and compromise as essential components of truly democratic governance. 

Thus, despite the notable affirmation of Armenia’s democratic resilience, this recent election is only the first step in a much more daunting and difficult path to sustainable post-war stability and durable institutional democracy.  

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by WCT staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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