Armenian opposition leader fails in bid to become prime minister

Moscow-allied Armenia has been in the clutches of a severe political crisis for the past few weeks

Yerevan (AFP) – Armenia’s protest leader Nikol Pashinyan on Tuesday failed to get elected prime minister after the ruling party withheld its support in a crucial vote, raising fears of worsening political turmoil.

Lawmakers voted 45 in favour to 55 against Pashinyan, with the ruling Republican Party rejecting his candidacy after hours of deliberations during a day-long extraordinary parliament session.

“The political force which declared a war against its own people has destroyed itself,” Pashinyan said in parliament after the vote. 

“No one will be able to take victory away from the people.”

The Republican Party headed by the ousted former prime minister Sezh Sarkisian withheld support for the protest leader despite tens of thousands massing in the streets and Pashinyan warning that the lawmakers’ unwillingness to back him could lead to a “political tsunami.” 

Huge crowds had earlier gathered in central Yerevan, clutching tricolour flags and watching a live video stream from the tense hearing on a giant screen.

Pashinyan, who was the only candidate for prime minister, told lawmakers earlier that members of Armenia’s former ruling elite were seeking a political comeback.

Pashinyan, who spearheaded weeks of mass protests that led to the resignation of the veteran leader Sarkisian last month, has insisted that only he can rid the poor ex-Soviet nation of corruption and poverty and conduct free and fair elections.

He had been thought to be just a handful of votes short of a majority in parliament.

In a further blow to the opposition, a lawmaker from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation party which has agreed to back Pashinyan, earlier Tuesday announced he would not back him.

Ahead of the vote lawmakers from the Republican Party grilled Pashinyan on a number of technical issues in an apparent effort to make him appear incompetent.

– Political dead end –

Eduard Sharmazanov, vice speaker of parliament and the Republicans’ spokesman, excoriated the 42-year-old former newspaper editor, implying he was unpredictable.

“Mr Pashinyan, I don’t see you at the post of prime minister, I don’t see you at the post of commander-in-chief.”

A lawmaker from the Elk coalition that nominated Pashinyan, Edmon Marukyan, accused the Republicans of leading the country into a “dead end.”

A source familiar with negotiations had told AFP earlier Tuesday that the Republican Party leadership was clinging to power and opposed Pashinyan’s election. 

The source said Pashinyan and the Republicans had struck a backdoor deal several days ago, but it appears that the ruling party backed out at the last minute.

Pashinyan had secured the backing of two other key parties including Prosperous Armenia.

But ahead of the ballot he was at least seven votes short of the 53 he needed from the 105-seat legislature, where the Republican Party has a majority.

– ‘Political death sentence’ –

Earlier in the day protester Karine Melkumyan expressed hope that the Republicans would have enough common sense to back Pashinyan. 

“Otherwise I don’t know, perhaps chaos will envelope Yerevan,” she said.

David Babayan, a 25-year-old software specialist, warned that the ruling party’s desire to cling to power would backfire.

“They will sign their own political death sentence,” he told AFP.

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 but failing to tackle a litany of problems like corruption and poverty.

Observers and the international community have expressed concern that the turmoil could destabilise the Moscow-allied nation, which has been locked in a territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.

Russia has urged compromise while the United States has called for “a resolution that reflects the interests of all Armenians”.

– Arch-enemy watches closely –

Armenia is dependent on Russia economically and militarily and Pashinyan has said his premiership would not threaten traditionally tight ties with Moscow. 

Armenia has for decades been locked in a bitter dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh, a breakaway statelet with an Armenian ethnic majority that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has closely watched the political crisis, with analysts warning Armenia’s arch-foe could use the turmoil to its advantage.

One Azerbaijani lawmaker, Gudrat Gasanguliyev, called on Tuesday for a special session of parliament, citing the prospect of “civil war” in Armenia.