Yerevan (AFP) – Tens of thousands rallied in Armenia’s capital Tuesday ahead of a crucial vote to elect a new prime minister as protest leader Nikol Pashinyan warned of a “political tsunami” if lawmakers don’t back him to lead the country.
Huge crowds gathered in central Yerevan in the blistering sun, clutching tricolour flags and watching a live video stream from a nail-biting special parliamentary session on a giant screen, where ruling party delegates appeared to be seeking to derail Pashinyan’s bid.
Pashinyan, who is the only candidate for prime minister in a vote by MPs expected later Tuesday, told lawmakers that members of Armenia’s former ruling elite were seeking to retake power.
“I want to warn them — gentlemen, the mistaken interpretation of people’s leniency as a weakness can lead to a genuine political tsunami,” he said.
Pashinyan, who spearheaded weeks of mass protests that led to the resignation of longtime leader Serzh Sarkisian last month, insists that only he can rid the poor South Caucasus nation of corruption and poverty and conduct free and fair elections.
He is a handful of votes short of a majority in parliament and lacks the crucial support of Sarkisian’s ruling party to get elected.
But lawmakers from the ruling Republican Party appeared Tuesday to be seeking to torpedo his bid, grilling Pashinyan on a number of technical issues ahead of the vote.
Eduard Sharmazanov, vice speaker of parliament and the ruling party’s spokesman, excoriated the 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.”
– Deal or no deal? –
A source familiar with negotiations told AFP Pashinyan could still be elected prime minister if several Republican lawmakers 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 backdoor deal several days ago, but it appears that the ruling party backed out at the last minute.
Over the past few days Pashinyan has secured the backing of two major parties including Prosperous Armenia, giving him a total of 47 votes.
But he was still six votes short of the 53 he needs from the 105-seat legislature, where the Republican Party has a majority.
– ‘Political death sentence’ –
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 ex-leader Sarkisian of a power grab, saying he wanted to extend his grip on power 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 –
Protests in Armenia stand in stark contrast to rallies in Ukraine in 2013-2014 and Georgia in 2003 which brought pro-Western governments to power and shredded ties with Moscow.
Armenia is hugely 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 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.