Artsakh citizens will be heading to the polls on March 31, 2020, for their first combined presidential and parliamentary election. In 2017, a new constitution, replacing the previous 2006 version, was ratified in a referendum, with 90% voting in favor.
Presidential Two-Term Limit
The new Constitution made a number of important changes to the governmental structure. It eliminated the position of Prime Minister, moving Artsakh from a semi-presidential model to a fully-presidential one. The President would now be elected at the same time as the 33-member National Assembly.
President Bako Sahakyan’s second term was set to expire later in 2017, while the National Assembly’s term was scheduled to end in 2020. To synchronize the two cycles, the parliament’s term could have been cut short. Instead, it was decided that the National Assembly would get to choose a “transitional” president, to serve out the intervening three years.
Although the new 2017 Constitution clearly states in Article 88, Section 2 that no individual can be elected President more than twice, a common interpretation was that the new Constitution reset that count, making Bako Sahakyan eligible to stand for the three-year transitional presidency, as well as two full additional five-year terms.
Prior to 2017, no previous president had broken the principle of the two-term limit. Robert Kocharyan was selected as the first President of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) by the Supreme Council, the precursor to the National Assembly, in December 1994. He was re-elected to the position in a popular vote on November 24, 1996. A fresh election was held on September 1, 1997, after Kocharyan was appointed Prime Minister of Armenia. Arkadi Ghukasyan was elected President in 1997 and re-elected in 2002. Bako Sahakyan was elected in 2007 and re-elected in 2012. In July 2017, five months after the constitutional referendum, the National Assembly elected him to serve the additional three-year transitional presidential term. All presidents of Artsakh have held the position as independents, without holding a membership in a political party.
When Artsakh held its first parliamentary election in 1991, 81 MPs were elected from single-member geographic districts. In 1995, these were reduced to 33 single-member districts, which were also used for the 2000 election. In 2005, a new proportional (hamamasnakan) component was added to the majoritarian (metsamasnakan) geographic districts. In addition to voting for their local district candidate, Artsakh voters would now also cast a second ballot for their preferred political party. Eleven of the 33 seats would be allocated proportionally to political parties based on their predetermined, ranked “party list” of candidates. Over the 2010 and 2015 parliamentary elections, the share of the proportional seats grew to 17 and then 22 of the 33 total seats, respectively. The 2017 Constitution specifies that the National Assembly is to be elected proportionally, eliminating the last geographic district seats.
With the introduction of proportional representation, political parties began to play a greater role in Artsakh politics. The two “establishment” parties, the Free Motherland Party and the Democratic Party of Artsakh, were both officially formed in 2005. Whereas independents were dominant in the 1990s, that is no longer the case. Currently, there are five official party caucuses in the National Assembly:
- The Free Motherland Party (FMP) has 16 MPs
- The Democratic Party of Artsakh’s (DPA) caucus has 6 MPs
- The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) has 6 MPs
- The Movement 88 Party’s (M88) caucus has 3 MPs
- The National Renaissance Party (NRP) has 1 MP
- The Independence Generation Party (IGP) has 1 MP (though, as a former FMP member, he sits as an independent and not officially a member of a party caucus)
Faced with the threat of attack by Azerbaijan, consensus-based coalitions are the norm in Artsakh but that may be beginning to change. In 2007, the FMP, DPA and ARF united behind Bako Sahakyan as their consensus candidate for President. That year, Sahakyan took 85% of the vote, with Masis Mayilyan as his main challenger, taking 12.5%. Mayilyan currently serves as the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Sahakyan’s administration. The FMP is led by Arayik Harutyunyan, who served as the last Prime Minister before the post was eliminated. The DPA is led by Ashot Ghoulyan, the Speaker of the National Assembly.
The Movement 88 Party had run on a joint-ticket (party alliance) with the ARF in 2005. They did not contest the 2010 election but then ran on their own in 2015.
Although the 2017 Constitution passed in a landslide referendum, the debate in the National Assembly was not so one-sided. The FMP and DPA supported the changes, but the ARF, M88 and NRP spoke against putting the draft to a referendum. The final vote saw the motion carry with 20 votes in favor, 7 against and 1 abstention.
Later that year, the FMP, DPA and ARF supported extending Bako Sahakyan’s tenure as President to the scheduled 2020 election. Movement 88 and Hayk Khanumyan, the sole NRP MP, opposed the extension; they voted for Eduard Aghabekyan, the leader of the Movement 88 Party. Sahakyan won in a 28-4 vote.
Demands for Accountability
The main political parties have a generally similar political ideology. They all prioritize the security of the de facto republic and view Artsakh’s ultimate future to be reunification with Armenia. Especially given Artsakh’s close-knit society (as of January 23, 2020, there are 103,506 registered voters), they are also likely to be associated with different local business interests through personal, family or other social ties.
One issue that had risen to the fore is the impunity of the National Security Service (NSS). In June 2018, a short while after the Velvet Revolution resulted in Nikol Pashinyan becoming Armenia’s Prime Minister, protesters began blocking major streets in Stepanakert. They were outraged at the beating of two men by a group associated with the Artsakh NSS. The protests only dispersed after Nikol Pashinyan asked them to give the authorities time to institute reforms.
On June 6, 2018, NSS Director Arshavir Gharamyan tendered his resignation, along with his deputy, Gagik Sargsyan, the Police Chief, Kamo Aghajanyan, and State Minister Arayik Harutyunyan (the FMP head and former Prime Minister). Five days later, President Bako Sahakyan officially announced that he would not seek another term in the 2020 election. He also appointed Arayik Harutyunyan as an Advisor to the President.
With the general election on March 31, a presidential runoff on April 14, and a constitutional referendum in Armenia on April 5, it will be a busy few weeks for election observers. It doesn’t help that April 5 is also Palm Sunday, with Easter falling on April 12.
So far, that hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of election observers. The Witness Observer Mission, a collaboration between Transparency International Anticorruption Center, Restart Student-Political Initiative and Civic Hub, put out a call for residents of Armenia and Artsakh that were interested in being election observers. Within 30 hours, they had already received 270 applications. The deadline to apply is March 1. Separately, a number of Representatives of the United States Congress are also sending their staff to serve as monitors.
Free Motherland-UCA Alliance
Presidential Candidate: Arayik Harutyunyan
The perceived front runner is Arayik Harutyunyan and his Free Motherland Party, which is running in a party alliance with the United Civic Alliance Party. The party alliance also encompasses the Movement 88 Party and the Republican Party of Artsakh. The Armenakan Party of Artsakh, a minor party that once elected an MP in 2000, officially endorsed Harutyunyan; however, they do not have any candidates on the party alliance list. The United Civic Alliance Party was founded on September 29, 2018, in the wake of the Velvet Revolution and the June protests in Stepanakert. Its mission is to insert youth into the de facto republic’s decision-making processes. Only a year after it was founded, they were able to get two of their members, Sasun Hambardzumyan, 25, and Arsen Baghdasaryan, 28, elected to Stepanakert’s 15-member city council. Although most of their members are closer to the bottom of the party alliance list, Aram Harutyunyan, 30, occupies the #3 spot. Eduard Aghabekyan, the Movement 88 Party Caucus Leader, occupies the #7 spot.
New Artsakh Alliance
Presidential Candidate: Masis Mayilyan
The main challenger is seen to be Masis Mayilyan, who lost to Bako Sahakyan in the 2007 presidential race and is Artsakh’s current Minister of Foreign Affairs. Though officially running as an independent, Mayilyan has an agreement to campaign together with the New Artsakh Alliance, consisting of the Artsakh of Tomorrow Party, the Identity and Unity Party and the Democratic Liberal (Ramkavar) Party of Artsakh. Mayilyan is not actually on the party alliance list, which means that, were he to lose the presidential race, he also would not get a seat in parliament. The presidential candidates of most parties (including Arayik Harutyunyan) are also listed first on their parliamentary candidate list. If they win the presidency, they would have to give up their parliamentary seat to the next person on their list; however, if they lose, assuming their party meets the minimum vote threshold, they would still be elected as an MP and play a role in the legislative branch.
The top candidate on the New Artsakh list is Grigori Sahakyan, who came in second in the September 2019 Stepanakert mayoral election, in which he ran as an independent. Sahakyan had recently founded a new political party, called the Confidence Party, in November 2019 but, through a February 13 Facebook post, announced that he was cutting ties with the upstart organization. The Identity and Unity Party had also fielded a candidate, Arayik Avanesyan, in the Stepanakert mayoral race. With 10% of the vote, Avanesyan came in last out of five and is not included on the New Artsakh party list for the upcoming election.
United Homeland Party
Leader: Samvel Babayan
Endorsing Masis Mayilyan for President
Samvel Babayan was a celebrated commander of Karabakh’s self-defense forces during and after the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan. Now, he is a controversial figure. In the 1990s, he was a powerful man: acclaimed as a Hero of Artsakh and serving as Defense Minister. In 2000, he was charged with an assassination attempt against then-President Arkadi Ghukasyan and was sentenced to 14 years in prison. While in prison, Babayan suffered from a number of illnesses that could not be treated while in custody and was therefore released early in 2004. Since then, Babayan mainly lived in Russia and returned to Armenia only in May 2016, following the Four Day April War.
Babayan was arrested again in 2017 in Armenia and was charged with money laundering and illegal arms possession; he denied the charges levelled against him. In November 2017, he was sentenced to six years in prison, but in June 2018 (two months after the Velvet Revolution), Armenia’s Court of Cassation overturned the verdict, setting Babayan free.
Babayan had announced his intention to participate in Artsakh’s 2020 presidential race but does not meet the Article 48, Section 2 constitutional requirement of having resided in Artsakh for the previous 10 years. Babayan subsequently collected about 21,000 signatures in support of a referendum to change that clause, allowing him to run. The petition, however, was rejected by Artsakh’s National Assembly, which has a final say on whether a referendum can be held.
Babayan is not even eligible to run for parliament, which requires residency in Artsakh for the past five years. The party list is topped by Gagik Baghunts, who was elected as an MP with the Movement 88 Party in 2015.
The United Homeland Party was established in September 2019. It is the only party that has two women among its top four candidates. On February 9, 2020, the party announced that they will endorse Masis Mayilyan for the presidency. The statement also said that Mayilyan agrees with the party’s platform, which focuses on three primary issues: creating an efficient army, overcoming economic stagnation and solving social problems.
Democratic Party of Artsakh
Presidential Candidate: Ashot Ghoulyan
Ashot Ghoulyan is among the main presidential contenders and the Chairman of the Democratic Party of Artsakh. Ghoulyan has served as the Speaker of Artsakh’s National Assembly since 2005. Previously, he also held positions as part of the executive branch, first as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and then as the Minister of Education, Culture and Sport.
After the 2000 election, the largest caucus in the Artsakh National Assembly was the “Democratic Artsakh Union,” with 20 out of the 33 members. In 2005, the group re-organized to officially form the Democratic Party of Artsakh and secured 10 of the 33 seats in the parliamentary election held that year. Their seat count fell to seven in 2010 and then six in 2015. As backers of the 2017 Constitution, the DPA can be seen as the other “establishment” party, together with the Free Motherland Party.
Armenian Revolutionary Federation
Presidential Candidate: Davit Ishkhanyan
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation has a long history in the region. As the governing party of the First Armenian Republic, they were involved in the first skirmishes over Karabakh during and after the First World War. When fighting broke out again in 1988, the ARF was an active player in the Karabakh War, with its own militia force. The ARF is the only party participating in the 2020 election that has chapters outside Artsakh, having a presence in Armenia and playing an important organizational role in the Armenian diaspora.
Davit Ishkhanyan participated in the Karabakh liberation movement and was elected as a member of the first iteration of Artsakh’s National Assembly, the Supreme Council, from 1991 to 1995, when the ARF was the largest party. He was elected to the National Assembly again in 2015 and was the leader of the ARF Caucus until 2017.
Originally, the ARF was not sure if it would field its own presidential candidate. In 2007, they had joined the FMP and DPA in backing Bako Sahakyan for president as a consensus candidate. As late as August 2019, they were hoping to broker a similar arrangement for the 2020 election and met with other political parties toward that end. On December 15, 2019, however, the party officially nominated Ishkhanyan as their presidential candidate and approved a seven-point platform, including the development of a new constitution. The party prefers the parliamentary model, where the executive branch is run by a Prime Minister selected by the parliament, instead of a directly-elected president.
Three ARF members entered the September 2019 Stepanakert City Council race. One of them, Trdat Martirosyan, won a seat, finishing 13th. During that election, the ARF had endorsed Grigori Sahakyan for Stepanakert mayor (who came in 2nd and now heads the New Artsakh Alliance list).
Justice Party of Artsakh
Presidential Candidate: Vitali Balasanyan
Retired Major General and former Secretary of Artsakh’s National Security Council Vitali Balasanyan has made it clear that he is not a fan of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Balasanyan participated in the Karabakh War and was a key commander in a number of battles. In 2002, he was awarded the title of Hero of Artsakh. In 2005, he retired from the military and was elected to the National Assembly as part of the ARF-Movement 88 Alliance. In 2010, he was re-elected under the ARF banner.
In 2012, Balasanyan informed the ARF about his intention to challenge Bako Sahakyan in that year’s presidential election. Instead of supporting his bid, the ARF party structure decided to back Sahakyan for a second term. Balasanyan ran anyway as an independent, taking 33% of the vote. In the 2015 parliamentary election, he returned to the National Assembly, this time as a member of the Movement 88 Caucus, by winning a district seat. In November 2016, Balasanyan was appointed Secretary of the National Security Council of Artsakh and served in this position until June 2019, when he was dismissed from the post by President Bako Sahakyan.
Balasanyan is extremely critical of Armenia’s current political leadership. In a number of statements, Balasanyan accused PM Pashinyan and his government of putting Armenia and Artsakh on the path to destruction. He was also quite critical of the Armenian government’s move to allocate about $70,000 to two Yerevan-based NGOs, Transparency International Anticorruption Center and Union of Informed Citizens, to conduct election observation missions during Artsakh’s municipal elections in September 2019. He described the move as direct interference with the sovereignty and constitution of Artsakh. In December 2019, when PM Nikol Pashinyan met with the declared candidates for the 2020 presidential election, Balasanyan was conspicuously left out. Pashinyan’s then-press secretary Vladimir Karapetyan clarified that it is imperative that citizens of Artsakh know that Armenia’s PM as well as his supporters believe that Balasanyan’s activities over the past several months were destructive and a threat to the national security of Armenia and Artsakh.
Similar to the United Civic Alliance Party, the Justice Party of Artsakh was founded in 2018, following the Velvet Revolution and the June protests in Stepanakert.
United Armenia Party
Presidential Candidate: Vahan Badasyan
When Vitali Balasanyan broke ranks with the ARF to run in the 2012 presidential election, fellow ARF MP Vahan Badasyan decided to support him and was expelled from the ARF party for doing so. Badasyan believes that Artsakh is in need of the same kind of renewal that Nikol Pashinyan brought to Armenia. His personal Facebook account proudly displays a “Vote Yes In the Referendum” badge, referring to Armenia’s upcoming April 5 constitutional referendum, an initiative of Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance government in Armenia.
Badasyan is from the southern Hadrut region, where he owns a farm and manages a flour mill. Like many other political figures, he fought in the Karabakh War to defend his hometown, later taking on administrative roles there. His United Armenia Party is also among the newly created parties and was officially registered on March 5, 2019. It has the least Stepanakert-centric candidate list; only two of their top ten candidates have their home address registered in the capital city. As is evident from the party’s name, they see Artsakh as an integral part of Armenia and want to see the two entities united under one government.
National Renaissance Party
Presidential Candidate: Hayk Khanumyan
During the 2012 presidential election, Hayk Khanumyan supported opposition candidate Vitali Balasanyan and assisted his election campaign. In 2013, he announced the establishment of the National Renaissance Party and has led it since then. In 2015, he was the sole member of the NRP to be elected to the National Assembly as they just barely made the 5% threshold. He styles himself as “the only opposition MP.”
After Samvel Babayan returned to Armenia in 2016, Khanumyan publicly called for him to be appointed as Artsakh’s Defense Minister. Hours after the announcement Khanumyan was brutally beaten at capital Stepanakert’s central square and hospitalized with serious body injuries. A number of politicians, including the President Bako Sahakyan, condemned the move, but the criminal case that was launched against four suspects was soon dismissed.
Khanumyan opposes any territorial concessions for the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and supports the resettlement of underpopulated areas of Artsakh.
Conservative Party of Artsakh
Presidential Candidate: Davit Babayan
Davit Babayan is the founder and chairman of the newly-established Conservative Party of Artsakh. During the past two decades, Babayan held a number of positions in the state apparatus, including at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and President’s Office. From 2005 to 2007, he worked as an assistant to the President of Artsakh, then as the President’s press secretary and later, as the Deputy Chief of Staff of the President’s Office.
In his February 26, 2019, Facebook post announcing the creation of the party, Babayan stated “In domestic politics, we are not against anybody and don’t consider anyone an enemy. Moreover, we deem unacceptable any division or polarization of our society. Our greatest strength is unity.”
In a June 6, 2016 interview with A1+ News, in the aftermath of the aggravated assault on Hayk Khanumyan, while President Bako Sahakyan and members of the National Assembly were condemning the crime, David Babayan, as the President’s press secretary, said “Knowing him well, I could expect this to happen one day. There is no political subtext here. Basically, his nature is such that he pesters people, insults them, provokes them… Unfortunately, knowing him, dealing with him, I know what kind of person he is… It seems he did something, insulted someone that could not take it… If someone is insulting another, what should we do? Stay silent? I repeat: unfortunately, knowing him well, I have tried to help that – I cannot even call him a man. I know who I am dealing with; I know how he presents himself. I think he did it deliberately to paint it as political.”
The Conservative Party of Artsakh fielded one candidate in the September 2019 Stepanakert City Council election. Davit Aghajanyan finished 11th, winning one of the 15 seats.
Independence Generation Party
Presidential Candidate: Ruslan Israyelyan
Ruslan Israyelyan held various positions with the Nagorno Karabakh Defense Forces throughout the 1990s before moving to the private sector in the 2000s. He was elected to the National Assembly in both the 2010 and 2015 parliamentary elections as part of the Free Motherland Party’s candidate list.
On June 4, 2018, in the midst of the protests in Stepanakert, he made a speech on the floor of the National Assembly, during a special session. He lamented the poor public relations capacity of the National Assembly and that the Artsakh Public TV channel did not adequately cover their activities. He vowed to do whatever he could to solve the issues they were facing and to “come out with dignity.” Days later, he resigned from the FMP and kept his seat as an independent.
In August 2018, Israyelyan attended the founding congress of the Independence Generation Party. The congress elected his son, Davit Israyelyan, as the head of the party’s governing council. In September 2019, the IGP fielded two candidates in the Stepanakert City Council election. One of them, Arayik Tsatryan, fell just 4 votes short of being elected, finishing 16th in the race to fill the 15-member city council.
At 58, Ruslan Israyelyan is the oldest candidate on the IGP’s party list. His son Davit, 31, is in the #2 spot. Among the 17 candidates on their party list, only five are older than 35.
Revolutionary Party of Artsakh
Leader: Artur Osipyan
No Presidential Candidate
The Revolutionary Party of Artsakh, which was founded in December 2019, is only in the parliamentary election; they have not nominated a presidential candidate. Party leader Artur Osipyan, who is also leading the 17-candidate party list, is known for his anti-government rhetoric. He associates Arayik Harutyunyan with the current leadership and has called for him to leave the race. Osipyan is a former lecturer at the Artsakh State University. The party believes that building a strong, democratic country that is based on the rule of law should begin with radical economic reforms.
The party list also includes one candidate, Ararat Petrosyan, from the Our Home is Armenia Party, in the #3 spot.
Communist Party of Nagorno-Karabakh
Leader: Grisha Hovhannisyan
No Presidential Candidate
The Communist Party of Artsakh also did not nominate a presidential candidate and will only participate in the parliamentary election. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist party was restored in 1996 and officially exists since 2001. Starting with the 2005 parliamentary election the party did not secure seats in the National Assembly. The average age of the party’s top ten candidates is 63. In 2015, the party received only 1.6% of the vote, down from 4.8% in 2010. Parties do not receive any seats if they fail to meet the 5% threshold.
Kristin Balayan: Independent Presidential Candidate
Just as not all political parties are fielding their own presidential candidate, not all presidential candidates are running on a party ticket. Besides Masis Mayilyan, who has associated himself with the New Artsakh Alliance, there are five other independent presidential candidates.
The first is Kristin Balayan. In an interview with CivilNet’s Tatul Hakobyan, she explains that she was a member of the Democratic Party of Artsakh until November 2019, when she left the party to launch her own independent presidential campaign. Balayan’s parents were born in Artsakh but moved to Baku, where she was born. Growing up, she spent her childhood summers in her family’s native village in Artsakh with her grandmother. In 1988, when she was ten years old, her family left Baku permanently. Upon hearing reports that Azerbaijanis were burning down houses and stealing livestock from their village, Balayan’s father enlisted as a volunteer to defend their hometown. A few years later, he was killed in action.
Balayan worked at an after-school center for 20 years, eventually becoming its vice-principal. One of her policy positions is to provide more aid to families raising children. She said that having many children should not restrict you to a life of poverty and that a one-time lump sum payment for a third or fourth child is not adequate to ensure that child can have a proper upbringing. In parallel, education is an important priority for her. She would cap class sizes to 20 students per teacher to ensure that each child can receive enough attention to support their personal learning.
Balayan was the first woman to announce her candidacy, making her the first female presidential candidate in the history of both Armenia and Artsakh.
Bella Lalayan: Independent Presidential Candidate
Bella Lalayan is the second female presidential candidate and a former spokesperson for Artsakh’s Ministry of Nature Protection and Natural Resources. Previously, she also worked at Artsakh Public TV as a journalist. Lalayan, who is quite critical of the Pashinyan administration, has said in a number of statements that she is concerned about the situation in Armenia. One of her main reasons for participating in the elections is preventing the possible replication of that situation in Artsakh as well.
Ashot Dadayan: Independent Presidential Candidate
Ashot Dadayan, at 36, is the youngest presidential candidate. He has an educational background in law. From 2008 to 2011, he held a number of positions at the State Tax Service of Nagorno Karabakh.
Sergey Amiryan: Independent Presidential Candidate
Sergey Amiryan’s Facebook Page says that he considered running for president for a long time. The Page was created on February 2, 2020 and only has one post, announcing his candidacy.
Melsik Poghosyan: Independent Presidential Candidate
Melsik Poghosyan, 38, is another independent presidential candidate. He and Ashot Dadayan are the only candidates under 40. The minimum age to run for president is 35. Although a personal Facebook account exists for a person from Artsakh with that name, it does not contain publicly-viewable campaign material and did not respond to our questions before publication.
Not Participating: Sasna Tsrer Pan-Armenian Party
The far-right Sasna Tsrer (Rebels of Sasun) Pan-Armenian Party, headquartered in Yerevan, had set up a branch in Artsakh but decided to boycott the 2020 elections. Instead, they are calling for Armenia to officially annex Artsakh and install a regional governor (marzpet). In an interview available on YouTube, the leader of the movement, Jirayr Sefilian, does not explicitly say that he should be the one appointed to the position. A former ARF member born in Lebanon, Sefilian had fought in the Artsakh War. He had been arrested multiple times in Armenia while Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan held the presidency. His supporters argued that the arrests were politically motivated and, in 2016, occupied a police station, creating a hostage crisis to demand his release.
Stepanakert Mayor Not Picking Sides
The recently-elected mayor of Stepanakert, David Sargsyan, elected as an independent, has made it clear that he is staying neutral in the race. In a February 1, 2020 Facebook post, he denounced those circulating pictures of him with a candidate (suggesting it as an endorsement) as malinformation. He stated, “My team was and remains the entirety of Stepanakert’s residents.”