Armenian protest leader says ruling party to thwart his PM bid

Several thousand people gathered in the capital's Republic Square, waving Armenia's tricolour flags and balloons and chanting "Pashinyan is prime minister!"

Yerevan (AFP) – Thousands of Armenians massed in the capital Tuesday ahead of a parliament vote to pick a new prime minister, with opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan accusing the ruling party of planning to derail his bid for the top job.

The extraordinary session of parliament to elect a new prime minister began in Yerevan as several thousand people gathered in the capital’s Republic Square, waving Armenia’s tricolour flags and balloons and chanting “Pashinyan is prime minister!”

“The Republicans won’t be able to thwart the people’s victory,” 59-year-old financier Armen Nikagosyan told AFP at the rally.

Ex-Soviet Armenia has been in the grip of a severe political crisis for the past two weeks, with pro-Moscow leader Serzh Sarkisian stepping down last week after a decade in power in the face of peaceful protests.

Pashinyan insists that only he can rid Armenia of corruption and poverty and conduct free and fair parliamentary elections.

Pashinyan, the leader of mass protests that forced Sarkisian from power in the impoverished Caucasus nation, is the only candidate for the post of prime minister.  

But he is short a handful of votes in parliament and the support of the ruling Republican Party is crucial. 

“During a nighttime meeting headed by Serzh Sarkisian the Republicans decided to derail tomorrow’s election of a prime minister,” Pashinyan said in a video address released in the early hours of Tuesday.

– ‘Republicans are clinging to power’ –

A source familiar with the negotiations told AFP on Tuesday the situation was febrile, saying Pashinyan could still be elected prime minister if several lawmakers from the Republican Party defected and voted for him.

“The Republican Party leadership is clinging to power and opposes Pashinyan’s election. The outcome of the vote now depends on how individual Republican Party MPs will vote,” the source said.

The source earlier said Pashinyan and the Republican Party had struck a deal several days ago, with the ruling party agreeing to support his bid. But it appears that agreement may no longer be in place, leaving Pashinyan short of votes.

In a troubling sign, Sarkisian’s Republican Party has not announced its official stance prior to the vote, with a senior lawmaker only saying it will not stand in the way of Pashinyan’s candidacy.

Over the past few days he has secured the backing of two major parties including Prosperous Armenia, giving him a total of 47 votes.

But he is still six votes short of the 53 he needs from the 105-seat legislature, where the Republican Party has a majority.

Pashinyan’s protest movement had accused ex-leader Sarkisian of a power grab, saying he had failed to tackle a litany of problems like corruption, poverty and the influence of oligarchs.

Many political observers said in the run-up to the vote that it was highly likely that the hugely popular protest leader would be elected prime minister.

“I see practically no obstacles to Pashinyan becoming a prime minister,” political analyst Hakob Badalyan told AFP on Monday.

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 for decades.

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