The success of Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance in Parliamentary Elections Shows Country Serious about Reform

Armenia’s parliamentary elections on Sunday concluded the transformation of the Caucasian country’s politics that started in April with the MezhirSerzhin (Reject Serzh) protests. Only three parties garnered enough votes to have a place in parliament. Pashinyan’s party, My Step Alliance, achieved an overwhelming victory by receiving over 70% of the vote, winning 88 of the 132 seats in the parliament. The complicated electoral system left many confused in the first hours of the vote count. It not only guarantees 30% representation for the opposition but adjusts the total number of seats according to the number and distribution of votes. The two other parties to make the cut were the pro-business Prosperous Armenia party with, a former coalition partner in the previous government, led by Gagik Tsarukyan, a businessman and a former world champion in arm-wrestling, and Bright Armenia, a liberal party that wants to deepen Armenia’s ties with the European Union. The Prosperous Armenia received 8% of the vote and 26 seats, while Bright Armenia secured 18 seats with 6% of the total vote.

The election underlined the widespread support for Armenia’s Velvet Revolution and Pashinyan’s reform agenda. In last spring, mass protests toppled the government of Serzh Sargsyan, who ruled Armenia for the last ten years and belonged to the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh clique who have held the highest power in the Armenian politics since the late 1990s. A group of politicians and warlords from the separatist region that Armenia and Azerbaijan have warred over, the clique and its politics grew increasingly unpopular in recent years amid Armenia’s poor economic performance and systemic corruption. When Sargsyan attempted to extend his rule by switching from the presidency to the premiership whose powers were increased couple years ago, large protests erupted across Armenia and eventually led to Sargsyan’s resignation and Pashinyan’s appointment as the prime minister.

Nikol Pashinyan (Photograph by krimchel.ru)

Nikol Pashinyan (Photograph by krimchel.ru)

In previous polls, around 90% of Armenians supported the revolution, and Pashinyan’s approval ratings have hovered at similar highs. The Republican Party, which ruled Armenia for the last decade, was not ready to resign from power without a fight. The former ruling party has systematically stalled and opposed much of Pashinyan’s reform agenda, and in the run-up to the election, the party outspent all the other parties combined in campaign financing. The Republican Party’s ads attempted to capitalize on the uncertainty and worry of Armenians over what the former ruling party portrayed as a wild-card future. Despite the PR push, the Republican Party was forced to concede a humiliating defeat: they failed to pass the 5% threshold and was unable to gain a single seat in the new parliament.

Low Voter Turnout Taints Pashinyan’s Victory

With the old guard out and the new parliament filled with loyal reformist newcomers, Pashinyan now has a broad mandate—a golden moment to reshape Armenia’s laws and system of governance. Until now, Pashinyan’s reforms have focused on dismantling government monopolies on basic commodities like sugar, which has significantly cut the consumer price for some import goods that generated significant revenue to the well-connected businessmen tied with the old regime.

Robert Kocharyan (Photograph by 1big.ru)

Now Pashinyan wants to focus on intensifying the fight against corruption. The prosecutor’s office has already gone after many high profile individuals, most notably Robert Kocharyan, who was Armenia’s second president from 1998 until 2008 when Serzh Sargsyan, Kocharyan’s proétége, succeeded him. Kocharyan was arrested in the summer because of his alleged involvement in the violent crackdown of opposition protests in 2008, which left ten people dead. He was subsequently released and re-arrested this month. The former leader of the Nagorno-Karabakh separatist movement, and a rumored close friend of Vladimir Putin, Kocharyan still sways strong influence amongst the old political elite and is allegedly pulling strings behind the Prosperous Armenia party.

Prime Minister Pashinyan has now consolidated his grip on power, is charismatic and hugely popular, but the new government will not have space for complacency. Sunday’s vote was historic. The election was the first free and fair in modern Armenian history, but less than half of the country’s eligible voters cast their ballots. In comparison, the voter turnout in last year’s parliamentary elections was 61%. The figures are not exactly comparable. International observers, like the OSCE, criticized the Armenian government in previous years for pressuring public sector workers to vote for the ruling government, which inflated the previous turnout figures. Nevertheless, the low voter turnout should be a reminder to Armenia’s government that the legacy of the Velvet Revolution remains in flux. Armenia is the most impoverished country in the South Caucasus, trapped in a frozen conflict with Azerbaijan over the control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Pashinyan’s reforms can garner acclaim from international observers, but if he fails to bring economic opportunities for the majority of Armenians, of whom 30% are under poverty, he risks repeating the missteps taken by former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who rose to power and international fame as the reformist leader of Georgia in the previous decade.

Armenia’s Velvet Revolution (Photograph by vestnikkavkaza.net)

The cautionary tale of the Caucasus

Like Pashinyan, the charismatic and idealistic Saakashvili came to power through revolution. Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 was the first of the color revolutions, toppling an aging and corrupt president of a country that showed the symptoms of all the ills of a post-Soviet state. In just a few years, Saakashvili’s reforms extracted much of the low-level corruption that had plagued the country, especially in the police force, cut red tape, boosted Georgia’s standing in the ease-of-doing-business rankings by over 100 places, and earned praise from the West. His ascent and reforms are remembered in the region, but so is his downfall. After serving two terms as president, Saakashvili lost a new bid at power, and he fled into self-imposed exile, while his successors hounded him with accusations of power abuse. Amidst the hype brought by tangible accomplishments under Saakashvili, many of Georgia’s rural poor continued to feel left behind, worsened by the disparity of experience. Moreover, Saakashvili’s push to secure the West’s backing for his reform agenda backfired by antagonising Moscow, which resulted in a vicious cycle of provocations that concluded in a brief war in 2008.

Mikheil Saakashvili (Photograph by gorod.lv)

So far, Pashinyan has shown prudence in avoiding Saakashvili’s fundamental mistake of antagonizing the Russian bear. As an opposition politician, Pashinyan opposed Armenia’s membership in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, making a series of statements in favor of integration with the European Union. Premiership has softened his tone. Armenia is too dependent on Russia to maintain the status quo in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to steer too far away from Moscow. After becoming the prime minister, Pashinyan made Moscow his first overseas visit, where he stressed that Armenia’s revolution is not about geopolitics or membership in regional organizations. It is doubtful that the elections will change Yerevan’s geopolitical calculus. Russia has a military base in Armenia, guards the closed border with Turkey, and guarantees that the oil-empowered Azerbaijan does not attempt too drastic moves to regain control of the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region. Russia might not be the ally Pashinyan wants, but it is the only one he can get to put forward armament in support of Armenia’s claims over Nagorno-Karabakh, which the Armenian public is not ready to abandon and the West is not prepared to accept.

Pashinyan’s new government will double down on domestic reforms. It seems to have learnt from Georgia’s mistakes not to internationalize its revolution, but eventually Armenia’s new political elite will have to face the hard reality: Armenia is not the region’s most impoverished country only because of corruption and bad policies but because of its international isolation. The election cemented the political transformation that the Velvet Revolution started. The changing of the guard is the low hanging fruit. A real transformation of the country in the landlocked, mountainous corner between Europe and Asia, trapped in conflict and isolation will be a challenge of a different scale.