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Armenia opposition leader secures support for PM bid after huge protests

Protesters say they will stay on the streets until opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan is elected prime minister
AFP

Yerevan (AFP) – Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan on Wednesday called for an end to a huge wave of protests and said all parties would support his bid to run for prime minister again next week.

“The issue has practically been solved,” he told tens of thousands of people during a rally in the capital Yerevan. “All factions said they would support my candidacy.”

“Kids, you are going to school tomorrow. We are suspending protests and going to have a rest.”

Jubilant scenes erupted across the capital which was on lockdown just a few hours earlier, with everyone from soldiers to mothers with pushchairs hugging each other and dancing on the streets. 

Lawmakers will convene on May 8 for a new extraordinary session of parliament to elect a prime minister, after the ruling Republican Party on Tuesday voted against a bid by Pashinyan, the hugely popular opposition leader, to take power.

Since last month the poor, Moscow-allied nation has been in the grip of its most serious political crisis in years after mass demonstrations forced the resignation of longtime leader Serzh Sarkisian.

After Sarkisian’s party rejected Pashinyan’s bid, despite initially promising not to stand in the way, tens of thousands on Wednesday launched a nationwide general strike, blocking key transport links, suspending railway traffic across the country and shutting down Yerevan and other cities. 

– ‘I don’t believe them’-

After the unprecedented show of defiance, Vahram Baghdasaryan, the head of the ruling party’s parliamentary faction, indicated the Republicans were finally ready to back Pashinyan.

He said the Republicans would back a candidate nominated by one third of lawmakers in accordance with legislation.

Pashinyan, 42, said his candidacy would be formally submitted on Thursday and called a jumbo rally for next Tuesday, urging 500,000 people to gather and “seal our victory”.

Protester Artashes Gevorkyan, a 52-year-old school teacher, said he was sceptical of the Republicans’ promises.

“I don’t believe them, but it looks like they are really scared and will not dare to try stealing our victory again,” he told AFP.

Mikhail Margaryan, a 38-year-old doctor added: “I am more than sure that in few days Nikol will be our new prime minister.”

Analysts said it appeared the ruling party had changed position in a bid to retain control of the legislature. 

If lawmakers fail to elect a prime minister for a second time, the legislature will be dissolved and early elections called.

“The Republicans are doing everything to retain a majority in parliament,” said analyst Manvel Sargsyan. 

The crisis, he added, will not end even if Pashinyan is elected prime minister because the ruling party will likely sabotage his initiatives in parliament.

– Capital on lockdown –

Earlier in the day tens of thousands of protesters including elderly people, pupils and even housewives paralysed Yerevan, with streets closed to traffic, and the subway and numerous stores shut.

Crowds of protesters waved national flags, blew vuvuzelas and shouted “Free, independent Armenia!”, turning the rallies into a street carnival.

The road linking Yerevan with its airport was blocked for several hours, forcing travellers to drag their luggage on foot.

The central bank warned Armenians against a run on banks, saying it was capable of ensuring the “stability of the country’s financial system”.

On social media, people launched a “name and shame” campaign against lawmakers, prompting the parliament speaker to ask them to stop harassing MPs.

In parliament, lawmakers could not convene for a session due to insufficient numbers, with the Prosperous Armenia party declaring a boycott over “an emergency situation in the country”.

Smaller towns and villages joined in the campaign of defiance. 

In the second city of Gyumri — which hosts a Russian military base — and the smaller town of Maralik, demonstrators burst into the mayor’s offices, demanding the local authorities side with protesters. 

– Humour and creativity –

Armenians’ famed good humour and temperament were on full display as they turned the general strike into a colourful spectacle, performing the national dance at the roadblocks and grilling meat.

A photo of a little boy blocking a street with his tiny toy cars went viral, as did a picture of a coffin outside the offices of the ruling party in the small town of Artik.

On Tuesday, parliament voted 45 in favour to 55 against Pashinyan who was the sole candidate in the running.

Observers have expressed concern that the turmoil could destabilise the country locked in a decades-long territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.

Pashinyan’s protest movement had accused Sarkisian of a power grab, saying he wanted to extend his grip on power by becoming premier after serving as president for a decade.

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