On May 1st the people of Armenia and everyone interested in Armenian politics throughout the world were glued to their TV screens, gadgets and phones to follow the eight-hour discussion in the National Assembly. Republic Square was full of demonstrators watching the events unfolding in parliament live on the big screen. They were all following one of the most significant discussions in the history of the parliament since independence. The last time parliament (then the Supreme Council) sessions were followed by so many people was in 1990 and 1991. But despite popular expectations, the candidate from the Yelk (Way Out) Bloc was not elected prime minister. Yelk was able to put together 36 additional votes and their candidate, Nikol Pashinyan, received 45 votes in total, while the ruling Republicans voted against Pashinyan’s candidacy with 56 votes, with one MP voting in favor of Pashinyan and one MP absent. The results of the vote caused new waves of uncertainty.
What happened on May 1st has become part of Armenia’s history. The video-recording of the election process is a must-watch for anyone interested Armenian politics. Quick judgments and labelling aside, this was not the same parliament that we saw 14 days ago, when it was electing the first prime minister under the amended constitution. Back then, there were only a few questions for the candidate and the atmosphere was welcoming. Except a few critical statements by the opposition members, it was a walk in the park for the Republicans. The election process took five hours and former president Serzh Sargsyan won with a comfortable majority. But he enjoyed his new post for just six days.
Things were completely different on May 1st. The ruling party felt the need to display its might, which they thought was the only way to shine a light on Nikol Pashinyan’s “inexperience and unpredictability.” But what everyone saw was a different Pashinyan, who against all odds proved to be well-prepared for the bid. He had a clear grasp of priorities. He appeared confident, well-informed, calm, visionary and respectful towards his political opponents. He came with one message — I can be a statesman and a leader. Witness my political maturity and judge for yourself. –– and he stayed committed to it during the entire discussion with a few minor exceptions or slip-ups.
The ruling majority came with a completely different objective — to shatter people’s confidence in Pashinyan and prove him unfit to be prime minister. The Republicans quickly realized their strategy was mistaken, but lacked the flexibility to reverse a decision that they had adopted beforehand.
I wonder how many Republicans calculated the implications of their “nay” vote, how many of them took the time to sit down and clearly picture what the day after their uncompromising vote would look like, how many of them have realized that they need to treat this matter with velvet gloves instead of an iron fist. Both the statements they made and their over-inflated self-confidence are questionable. Instead of opting for a time-tested formula and seeking compromise with the people in the streets, they simply enraged the people. Most of the Republicans were there to engage in demagoguery, but a mountain of circumstantial evidence suggests that this was a mistake. With the exception of a few MPs, like Samvel Farmanyan, the Republicans were interested in one thing only – to destroy Nikol’s image. Their reiteration of the same questions with different flavors, most notably repeatedly stressing Russia’s strategic importance to Armenia, came across as ridiculous. They kept insisting that Nikol Pashinyan was failing to convince them, however, they came predisposed for this failure, and only came off sounding cynical.
Meanwhile, the Yelk Bloc also needs to explain what efforts were invested in securing the necessary votes from the Republicans. Did they start yesterday’s election process hoping to convince the Republicans during the discussion? What had been done beforehand? They needed seven votes from the Republicans to win the bid and the leaders of the protest movement were assuring the people that they had secured them. In one interview, Nikol Pashinyan said that up to 30 Republicans had approached him to lend their support. What went wrong? Why did only one Republican vote for them? Was he among those who has approached the protest leaders?
The destructive radicalism of the Republicans in the parliament promises tumultuous post-elections events. Those politicians who proudly claimed that the animosity that had existed in the streets of Yerevan after each presidential election was a thing of the past have now turned out to be wrong. The streets of Armenia are now full of outraged people whose voices have been ignored once again. And if in the past the protest movement was limited to the central streets of Yerevan, now it has spread throughout the country. The majority of the Republicans have done almost nothing to avoid lingering uncertainty. Filled with fictitious accusations based on speculations about Pashinyan’s candidacy, the Republicans have failed to see the big picture once again. They have failed to comprehend that it is not about Nikol Pashinyan himself, as he is only a tool in the hands of the people. After a certain amount of time they will realize this, but will it not be too late? Instead of fostering a meaningful national consensus, instead of accepting their past mistakes, they have further complicated matters.
Calmer heads should prevail among the Republicans. They should acknowledge that their rise to power was by virtue of money, corruption and other favorable circumstances, and that is why they have had to confront incipient rebellions. Merely allowing that a crisis exists in the country is an injury to the national psyche.
Until 20:45 yesterday, the Republicans could have proved that they cared about the country. There was hope that they might assess the situation and be flexible. But today, only three political options are left to the Republicans – to nominate their own candidate, to support an alternative candidate who is acceptable to them, or to take the country to snap elections by once again rejecting Nikol’s candidacy. According to Article 149.3 of the constitution, the second round of the voting can take place after seven days, which means that for another week Armenia will be embroiled in strikes. Didn’t the Republicans foresee this? After yesterday’s display of “ultimate expertise and supremacy” the Republicans should consider a fourth option, if they want to stay relevant to Armenian politics–they should let Nikol be prime minister, and let him take the country to snap polls.
The Republicans should not be afraid of elections under the temporary government of “the people’s candidate,” because they are the ones who proposed and supported the new parliamentary democracy. In this system, elections are held more often than in the presidential system. The Republicans should also accept that in a parliamentary democracy, minority governments are quite common. They should not think of Yelk as usurpers. The current parliament does not the reflect the wishes of the people or the political reality on the ground. The Republicans should take the time to connect the dots and act accordingly. A long-term domestic crisis is a dangerous business, and it will only be made worse by the mistakes that come from being inflexible.