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Armenia’s post-election challenges | New Europe

In the wake of Armenia’s recent early parliamentary election, incumbent Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is set to form a new government.  Armed with a fresh mandate of nearly 54 percent of the vote in the snap election of June 20, Pashinyan’s “Civil Contract” party will enter the new Armenian parliament with a decisive majority of 71 seats.  Beyond that election win and besides the achievement of a free and fair contest, the euphoria of victory for the incoming government will evaporate quickly, however.  And for both Pashinyan and his party, the post-election challenges that lie ahead are no less daunting and, in some ways, even more difficult.

A Polarized Parliament

The immediate challenge awaiting the new Pashinyan government is political.  In this context, the new incoming parliament will still reflect the deep political polarization of the campaign.  Politics will be marked by confrontation and conundrum, with the parliament as the arena for conflict pitting the opposition against the government.  Although the opposition garnered significantly fewer votes and, therefore, less seats than they expected or promised, as opposition front runner, the electoral bloc of former President Robert Kocharian is far from defeated.  Buoyed by just over 21 percent of the vote, this opposition “Armenia Alliance” bloc holds 29 seats in the new 107-seat parliament.  

In addition, another opposition party, the “I Have Honor” bloc affiliated with former President Serzh Sargsyan, will also enter the new parliament, with 7 seats, albeit due to a constitutional concession.  Interestingly, with a meager 5.2 percent of the vote, this second opposition bloc failed to surpass the threshold of minimum votes necessary to gain representation in the parliament but benefited from the constitutional requirement of having at least three parties in parliament.  

And with an added degree of either irony or drama, both parliamentary opposition parties will be dominated by two former two-term presidents.  By virtue of both Serzh Sargsyan, the victim of Pashinyan’s “Velvet Revolution” of 2018, and Robert Kocharian, the elusive target of Pashinyan’s wrath, the opposition is endowed with two decades of experience.

But the outlook for the opposition is not as assured as asserted.  For one, the two former presidents are hobbled by their own tense relationship, confirmed by their failure to unite against the government for the election.  In fact, this factor only helped to re-elect the Pashinyan government, as the broader anti-government electorate was seriously split, thereby dividing opposition votes between four different and competing opposition parties and blocs.  And by running separate and even dueling campaigns, the mutual animosity of the opposition leaders was seen to be as deep and as divisive as their hatred of Pashinyan.  This also suggests an incapacity to coordinate legislative strategy against the government that would further undermine their parliamentary potential to obstruct or oppose Pashinyan in the months to come.  

And even if they could bridge their personal divide, their combined total of 36 seats is still less than needed for exercising any real power in parliament.  Ironically, one decision where both men agree is to not serve as deputies.  But this will only further weaken their position in the coming partisan warfare within parliament.  While Sargsyan opted to serve as the leader, but not as a candidate. for his opposition bloc, Kocharian has expressed disdain for his mandate, revealing that a seat in parliament would be beneath his stature as a former president.

An Obstructionist Opposition Strategy 

Against that backdrop, the more possible scenario involves a new parliament marked more by hostile confrontation than any legislative compromise.  Rather, reflecting a more destructive anti-establishment posture, the opposition will revert to its original political strategy of resignation over election.  More specifically, that initial strategy, pursued by the opposition right up until Pashinyan decided to resign and trigger an early election, was focused on one pressing priority: the resignation of Pashinyan and his government.  Therefore, by reverting to that original objective, the opposition is expected to obstruct policies, disrupt votes and derail legislative procedures within parliament, while seeking to sabotage the government at every turn.  But with the incoming Pashinyan party holding just one vote short of an outright two-thirds supermajority, such opposition moves are more likely to damage the public policy process and impede governance than to inflict any lasting injury on the government.    

Pressing Priorities

But beyond the immediate political challenge, the next Pashinyan government will also have to manage a set of looming policy priorities.  In a broader sense, the outcome of the election and the fresh mandate for the government brought only a temporary respite.  Unprecedented challenges, ranging from pronounced post-war insecurity to the lingering impact of COVID-19, demand immediate political attention and urgent policy initiatives.  And more narrowly, as important as this recent early election was, it was not enough to address the deeper deficiencies in governance in Armenia, such as a lack of institutional checks and balances and a reform program that is imperiled.

In terms of public policy, the three main imperatives are clear.  First, post-war insecurity demands a new Armenian diplomatic strategy, based on the inclusion of a more innovative and flexible adoption and adaptation of diplomatic tactics in pursuit of defined national interests and in defense of “end state” objectives.  The second imperative stems from post-war uncertainty and is rooted in the need for a new direction in defense reform, incorporating “after action” assessments and military “lessons learned” based on a critical review of the unexpected severity of the losses in the 2020 war for Nagorno Karabakh.  And each of these two imperatives requires a coherent strategic vision that has been lacking to date.

While there has been dangerously little real progress in either area, the third imperative is equally significant.  While this policy imperative actually pre-dates the Karabakh War, it involves a different kind of war: the public health war against the Coronavirus pandemic.  And in this regard, the government must confront the impact of the health crisis and the distressingly low level of vaccination in the country, but also plan for the essential economic recovery from the pandemic.         

The Risk of “Self-Inflicted Wounds”

At the same time, there is a further danger facing Armenia, which stems neither from the political opposition nor from the pressing policy challenges.  This risk originates from the government itself, demonstrated by the risk of “self-inflicted wounds.”  Moreover, given a record of impulsive and often reckless leadership, it is Pashinyan himself who poses the most serious risk to his standing.  This is a risk derived from the temptation for Pashinyan to pursue vendetta politics, engaging in political retribution and personal revenge that may very well undermine his own legitimate government and unravel the hard-fought democratic gains in governance since 2018.  Thus, Armenia’s post-election reality remains as fragile and vulnerable as ever, which no amount of wishful thinking or misplaced exceptionalism can effectively manage or mitigate.  

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