Armenians went to the polls Sunday in early parliamentary elections called by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in an attempt to renew his mandate and heal divisions after a disastrous war with Azerbaijan.
But the reformist leader, who spearheaded peaceful protests in 2018, has lost much of his appeal after a humiliating defeat last year to Azerbaijan over a decadesold territorial dispute. He is locked in a tight race with former president Robert Kocharian.
"The destiny of our Armenian nation will be decided today," said one voter, 73-year-old Emma Sahakyan. Analysts say the election result is hard to predict, with both Pashinian and Kocharian drawing massive crowds on the eve of the polls and planning four days of rallies after the vote.
The election in the South Caucasus country of three million people is being watched by Armenia's Soviet-era master Moscow as well as Baku and Ankara, all of which supported Azerbaijan in the six-week war over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Kocharian, who hails from Karabakh and was in power between 1998 and 2008, appeared in good spirits as he showed up at a Yerevan polling station. "I voted for worthy peace and economic growth," he said.
By contrast, Pashinian did not address reporters at a polling station but wrote on Facebook: "I am voting for the future of our state and people, for the development of Armenia."
During a campaign marred by polarising rhetoric, he said he expected his Civil Contract party to secure 60% of the vote, though some pollsters say those estimates are far-fetched.
One voter, Anahit Sargsyan, said the prime minister deserved another chance, adding she feared the return of the old guard whom she accused of plundering the country. "I voted against a return to the old ways," said the 63-year-old former teacher.
Another voter, Vardan Hovhannisyan, said he cast his ballot for Kocharian, who counts Russian leader Vladimir Putin among his friends. "I voted for secure borders, solidarity in society, the return of our war prisoners, the well-being of the wounded and a strong army," said the 41-year-old musician. Three hours after polls opened, voter turnout stood at over 12%, election officials said.
Earlier in February Armenia saw a spike in demonstrations demanding the resignation of Pashinian. Throngs of opposition demonstrators swarmed the streets of the Armenian capital, chanting "Nikol, you traitor!” and "Nikol, resign!” Opposition supporters blocked the streets around Yerevan, paralyzing traffic around the capital.
The protests against Pashinian began in November after he signed a cease-fire pact with Azerbaijan that conceded territory occupied by Armenian forces. The deal ended a six-week war over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory in which thousands died. The dispute with Azerbaijan over the territory had ensued for decades. Critics accuse Pashinian of ceding swathes of territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.
Relations between the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia have been tense since 1991 when the Armenian military occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory recognized as part of Azerbaijan, and seven adjacent regions. New clashes erupted on Sept. 27, 2020, and ended with a Russian-brokered truce six weeks later.
The Armenian army launched attacks on civilians and Azerbaijani forces and violated three humanitarian cease-fire agreements during the 44-day conflict. After nearly 30 years, Azerbaijan managed to liberate its territories from the illegal Armenian occupation. Yerevan was defeated and was forced to sign a cease-fire agreement with Baku that put an end to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh on Nov.10.
Pashinian says he had to agree to the Moscow-brokered truce with Azerbaijan in order to prevent further human and territorial losses. More than 6,500 people were killed in the war, according to the latest official estimates from Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Besides Kocharian, two other leaders of post-Soviet Armenia are backing parties in the race. All three are in opposition to Pashinian. On Sunday, Kocharian's electoral bloc alleged election irregularities, while one Pashinian opponent wrote on Facebook that a military commander in the country's northeast pressured subordinates to back the prime minister. A venomous campaign saw candidates exchange insults and threats.
Pashinian, 46, brandished a hammer at rallies, while Kocharian, 66, said he would be ready to fight the prime minister in a duel. Kocharian faces a corruption probe and was also investigated over a deadly crackdown on protesters more than a decade ago. A poll released Friday by MPG, a group affiliated with Gallup International Association, showed Kocharian's Armenia bloc leading narrowly with 28.7% to 25.2% for Pashinian's party.
Following in third with 10.8% was an alliance linked to Pashinian's enemy and predecessor Serzh Sargsyan. A record four electoral blocs and 21 parties are running for election, but only a handful are expected to win seats in parliament. Around 2.6 million people are eligible to vote to elect for a five-year term the minimum number of 101 parliament members under a proportional electoral system. A winning party needs to obtain at least 50 percent of seats plus one and can be assigned additional seats in order to form a government. Polls will close at 4 p.m. GMT in an election being monitored by observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
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