BY LILLIAN AVEDIAN
From the Armenian Weekly
While unofficial campaigning for the upcoming snap parliamentary election has long been underway, the campaign season for the June 20 election officially launched this week.
Since the end of the 2020 Artsakh War in November, a movement organized under the umbrella of the Homeland Salvation Movement has been calling for the resignation of PM Nikol Pashinyan and the installation of an interim government. In April, Pashinyan resigned according to an agreement with the opposition parliamentary factions to stage early elections, in which he will seek reelection, in order to resolve the country’s ongoing political crisis.
According to the latest poll, support for the major political parties is divided as such: 22.4-percent of participants will vote for the Civil Contract party, 20.6-percent for the Armenia Alliance, 4.2-percent for the Prosperous Armenia party, 3.9-percent for the I’m Honored Alliance and 2.9-percent for the Bright Armenia party. Support for Pashinyan’s Civil Contact party has sharply declined from 33-percent of voters, while support for Robert Kocharyan’s Armenia Alliance has multiplied from single-digit numbers.
While Pashinyan and Kocharyan lead the polls, they are joined in the race by 24 other political groupings. A total of 22 political parties and four alliances of two or more political parties have registered with the Central Election Commission to compete in the upcoming snap parliamentary elections. Those political parties have presented 2,605 candidates, who will vie for 105 seats in the National Assembly. Each party has presented a closed rank-ordered list of candidates, according to an electoral reform bill passed in April eliminating the open list component of the “ratingayin” system.
The quota for the proportion of female MPs on each party list must be at least one out of three candidates. A total of 947 women are competing in the race, which is 36.3-percent of the total number of candidates. The Armenia Alliance has the lowest proportion of female candidates (30.7-percent) while the Pan-Armenian National Statehood Party has the highest (43.9-percent). Historically, while women and men vote in equal numbers across gender lines, women are severely underrepresented within the Armenian government.
The first party on the ballot is the Fair Armenia Party (FAP), with prime ministerial candidate Norayr Norikyan. The FAP is highly critical of the widespread corruption among former government leaders, and it criticizes Pashinyan’s administration for its failure to deliver convictions on corruption charges. During the FAP’s founding congress on February 20, 2021 (the date was selected in honor of the start of the movement for the liberation of Artsakh in 1988), Norikyan presented a “yellow card” to the Pashinyan administration in this regard. “In politics, only the people and political forces that enjoy their trust can present a red card to resolve the issue of leadership,” he said.
The first president of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who served between 1991 and 1998, is attempting a political comeback as the head of the Armenian National Congress Party (ANC Party). The ANC Party is the successor to the Armenian National Movement, which formed Armenia’s post-independence government. In 2008, Ter-Petrosyan ran for president in a controversial election cycle that international observers determined was marred by widespread irregularities. Ten people died, and hundreds were injured in a violent state crackdown on rallies, which Pashinyan helped organize, opposing the election of former President Serge Sargsyan. While the ANC Party supported Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance in the 2018 election, Ter-Petrosyan has been publicly critical of Pashinyan’s handling of the Artsakh conflict since the end of the war. In May, he called upon his fellow former presidents to form an electoral alliance to unseat Pashinyan, an offer that Sargsyan and Kocharyan rejected. Nonetheless Ter-Petrosyan, who has also criticized his successors for squandering opportunities for compromise and settlement of the Artsakh conflict, has declared that his primary goals in running for prime minister are to oust Pashinyan and prevent Kocharyan’s return to power.
Acting PM Pashinyan hopes to retain his seat as the head of the Civil Contract Party, which is running independently in this election. In the 2018 snap parliamentary elections following nationwide mass protests that unseated Sargsyan, Pashinyan led the My Step alliance, composed of the Civil Contract and Mission parties, to a landmark victory, earning approximately 70-percent of the vote. The Civil Contract Party, which was formed in 2015, had previously participated in the 2017 election alongside the Bright Armenia and Republic parties as part of the Yelk alliance. Pashinyan has said that the Civil Contract Party rejects “isms”and “hardened ideologies.” “We are not liberal, we are not centrist, we are not social democrat; we are a civil party,” he said during a speech in 2019. Yet the party has come under criticism due to the inclusion of Gurgen Arsenyan and Khachatur Sukiasyan—two wealthy and prominent businessmen—on the 2021 candidate list. “One of the promises of the revolution was that business and politics would be separate, and no benefits would enter parliament,” Bright Armenia Party leader Edmon Marukyan told reporters. “The authorities are breaking their promise again.”
The next party on the ballot is the Awakening National Christian Party, with prime ministerial candidate Ara Zohrabyan. The party’s founder Vahagn Chakhalyan served time in prison in Georgia between 2009 and 2013 on charges of “organization of large-scale events, public disturbance, hooliganism and illegal possession of weapons” that he viewed as persecution for his political activity in Javakhk. Leaders of the Awakening National Christian Party, including Zohrabyan and Chakhalyan, were active in the 2019 Kamk movementagainst the ratification of the Istanbul Convention on preventing gender-based violence and domestic violence. The movement contended that the convention’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity violates the Armenian Constitution in that it prescribes a “third gender.”
Former PM Hrant Bagratyan, who served as part of Ter-Petrosyan’s administration between 1993 and 1996, will be leading his Freedom Party, which he founded in 1997. Bagratyan has been active in the movement calling for Pashinyan’s resignation since November.
Former head of the National Security Service Artur Vanetsyan will lead the I’m Honored Alliance, consisting of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) and Vanetsyan’s Homeland Party. The RPA, one of Armenia’s longest ruling parties, was founded in 1990 and held seats in parliament in every election cycle until 2018, when it was defeated by the Velvet Revolution. Sargsyan, chairman of the RPA, served as president from 2008 to 2018; during his tenure, the RPA earned approximately 44-percent of the vote in the 2012 election and 49-percent in 2017. Vanetsyan, who served in Pashinyan’s administration, was part of a group of 10 opposition figures briefly detained in November on charges of “organizing illegal violent mass disorder” and allegedly plotting an assassination attempt of the prime minister. At the time, Vanetsyan and Sargsyan were part of the Homeland Salvation Movement, and they have continued to demand the PM’s resignation. Taron Margaryan, who is second on the alliance’s candidate list, has been absent from politics since he resigned from his post as mayor of Yerevan amid corruption allegations in 2018.
Lusine Avagyan is one of two female prime ministerial candidates participating in the election with the United Homeland Party (UHP). The UHP, one of the many political parties formed in the months preceding the election, advanced a message of political unity during its founding congress on April 23. “We do not wish to criticize anyone,” said founder Mher Terteryan. “We want to focus on the future.”
The Pan-Armenian National Statehood Party was also founded this spring and will run Artur Vardanyan as its candidate for prime minister. The party vows to strengthen statehood and protect Armenia’s borders in the aftermath of the war.
The Bright Armenia Party, currently the third-largest parliamentary party, is participating in the election with founder Edmon Marukyan at its head. Marukyan, who established the party in 2015, was elected MP in 2012. While the party was formerly part of the Yelk alliance alongside the Civil Contract party, the relationship between the parties soured after Civil Contract MP Sasun Mikayelyan slapped Marukyan during a parliamentary session in May of 2020. Marukyan has called for Pashinyan’s resignation in the aftermath of the war, but he has not associated himself with the Homeland Salvation Movement.
The next party on the ballot is the Our Home is Armenia Party, led by Goodwill ambassador and President of the Union of Armenians in Russia Ara Abrahamyan. The party is presenting a joint list with the Alliance Progressive-Centrist Party, led by Tigran Urikhanyan, who is running for prime minister. Urikhanyan served as an MP with the Prosperous Armenia Party from 2012 to 2017, with the Alliance Progressive-Centrist Party as part of the Tsarukyan Alliance from 2017-2019 and as an independent from 2020 to the present day.
MP Aram Z. Sargsyan is running for prime minister with his Republic Party. Sargsyan founded the Republic Party in 2001 after serving as prime minister from 1999 to 2000. The party advocates for the creation of a professional standing army, strengthened by utilizing the country’s natural resources and investment in science. Sargsyan’s brother was former prime minister Vazgen Sargsyan, one of the eight victims of the deadly shooting in Armenia’s National Assembly on October 27, 1999.
Armenia’s Homeland Party, formed in 2005, is running prime ministerial candidate Artak Galstyan in the election.
The Free Homeland Alliance is the only alliance that includes more than two political parties: the Conservative Party, the Armenian Construction Party, the National Self-Determination Union Party, the National Democrats’ Alliance Party and the Armenian Green (Socio-Ecological) Party. Mikayel Hanrapetyan heads their joint list of candidates.
Business tycoon Gagik Tsarukyan is running for reelection with his Prosperous Armenia party (PAP). The former armwrestling champion and the wealthiest businessman in Armenia owns the Multi Group of companies, which includes over 40 businesses. Tsarukyan is also president of the National Olympic Committee of Armenia. After founding the PAP in 2004, he resigned as its leader in 2015 following a confrontation with Sargsyan, who described him as “evil” and ordered tax audits of his various businesses. The disagreement stemmed from Tsarukyan’s opposition to the 2015 constitutional referendum transitioning from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. He returned to politics in 2017, and since then the PAP has been the largest parliamentary opposition party. In September of 2020 Tsarukyan was arrested on suspicion of vote buying, fraud and illegal land appropriation, yet he was released on bail one month later after martial law was declared following the start of the war. While Tsarukyan joined the Homeland Salvation Movement, the PAP is running independently.
The next party on the ballot is the Democratic Party of Armenia, with prime ministerial candidate Tigran Arzakantsyan. Arzakantsyan, founder of the Tigran Arzakantsyan Foundation, served as an MP with the RPA from 2003 to 2012. He is married to Natalya Rotenberg, former wife of Russian billionaire Arkady Rotenberg. Aram G. Sargsyan, the final head of the Communist Party in Armenia prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, founded the Democratic Party in 1991.
Karin Tonoyan is the second of two women heading a party’s electoral list with the 5165 National Conservative Movement Party. Tonoyan was the host of the Hay Aspet television program, the main goal of which was the “intellectual education of the new generation considered as a factor of national security.” She is the mother of Menua Hovhannisyan, who died serving in the 2020 Artsakh War and was posthumously awarded the Hero of Artsakh title. The 5165 National Conservative Movement Party, the name of which is a reference to the elevation (in meters) of Mount Ararat, has announced that its main goal is to remove Pashinyan from power.
The Citizens’ Decision Social-Democratic Party is participating in the election with Suren Sahakyan heading its electoral list. The party was founded in 2018 in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution by left-leaning activists who held leadership positions in previous protest movements including the 2012 sit-in to save Mashtots Park from development and the 2015 “Electric Yerevan” demonstrations that reversed a hike in the price of electricity. The party has an extensive platform, including the creation of a welfare state and progressive reforms on gender equality, trade unions, criminal justice reform and the environment.
MP Arman Babajanyan and political scientist Levon Shirinyan are running with a joint list as the Shirinyan-Babajanyan Democrats’ Alliance. Babajanyan, its candidate for prime minister, was elected MP in 2018 as a member of the Bright Armenia party yet has served as an independent since 2019 and founded the For the Republic Defenders of Democracy Alliance Party in 2021. Shirinyan, former leader of the Christian-Democratic Renaissance Party, founded the Christian-Democratic Party in 2021.
Former diplomat Ara Hakobyan is running for prime minister with the National Agenda Party, which he co-founded in 2018.
The Ascent Party is participating in the election with the goals of reorganizing the army and creating a professional, disciplined military. Its candidate for prime minister is Aleksan Minasyan. Minasyan is the founder of the Monte Melkonian Military Academy and the former head of the Vazgen Sargsyan Military University. After retiring from the Armenian Armed Forces in 2003, he established the “Zhayr” Pan-Armenian NGO, which supports the youth in forming self-defense detachments.
Former commander of the Artsakh Defense Army during the first Artsakh war Samvel Babayan is running for prime minister with the Liberal Party. Babayan intended to run in the 2020 parliamentary election in Artsakh with his United Homeland Party, but was declared ineligible due to residency issues. Babayan was briefly arrested in 2017 on charges of illegal arms acquisition and money laundering, yet he was released from custody under the Pashinyan administration.
The Armenians’ Eagles United Armenia Party, founded in 2018 by Khachik Asryan as an outgrowth of the patriotic Armenians’ Eagles non-governmental organization, is competing in its first election cycle. Asryan served as Deputy Minister of Sport and Youth Affairs from 2007 to 2018.
The European Party of Armenia (EPA) favors membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union and distance from Russian influence. Filmmaker Tigran Khzmalyan founded the party in 2018 and is running for prime minister. Khzmalyan worked as a journalist at the A1 and Vesti TV companies during the first Artsakh war and later as the head of the Yerevan TV Studio. He also served as a political analyst for the Armenian Assembly of America and Deputy Director of the UN Department of Public Information. The EPA formed the National Democratic Axis in 2020 alongside Sasna Tsrer, yet registered separately for the upcoming election. Famous singer Ruben Hakhverdyan is ranked second on the party’s candidate list.
Former President Kocharyan, who has not been involved in politics since his term ended in 2008, leads the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and Resurgent Armenia party in the Armenia Alliance. Kocharyan served as prime minister from 1997 to 1998 and president from 1998 to 2008. He also served as the president of the Republic of Artsakh from 1994 to 1997. During his presidency, several proposals for settlement of the Artsakh conflict were considered, including the Key West agreement, which was rejected by former President of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev. In June of 2018 Kocharyan was charged with “overthrowing the constitutional order” due to his role in the violent state crackdown on the 2008 post-election protests. Following a two-year trial he was acquitted after the court ruled that the section of the criminal code under which he was charged was invalid. The Resurgent Armenia party is led by the former governor of Syunik Vahe Hakobyan. Its membership largely consists of local politicians from the province, including the mayors of Goris, Meghri, Kajaran and Sisian. Chair of the Supreme Council of the ARF in Armenia Ishkhan Saghatelyan is second on the Alliance’s list of candidates.
Sasna Tsrer formed the National Democratic Axis Pan-Armenian Party, which is competing in the election with Vahe Gasparyan at the top of its candidate list. Sasna Tsrer stormed a police station in Yerevan in July of 2016, killing several police officers and taking others hostage. Their demands included the release of detained leader of the Founding Parliament opposition group Zhirayr Sefilian, the resignation of President Sargsyan and a tougher stance on negotiations over the Artsakh conflict.
The final party on the ballot is the Sovereign Armenia party. Its candidate for prime minister, Davit Sanasaryan, is a former member of the Civil Contract party and activist in the “Reject Serge” movement that brought down the former government. A close ally of Pashinyan, he was appointed head of the State Oversight Service, Armenia’s anti-corruption agency, after the Velvet Revolution. Yet in 2019 he was charged with abuse of power in order to “promote the interest of his employee’s business,” and he resigned from his post at the start of this year amid the ongoing investigation. He founded the Sovereign Armenia party in 2021.