Armenian leader's party wins snap vote despite defeat in war

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Armenian acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan speaks during a rally in his support after winning snap parliamentary elections in Yerevan, Armenia, Monday, June 21, 2021. Voting results show that the party of Armenia's acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has won snap parliamentary elections which he called to ease anger over a peace deal he signed with Azerbaijan. The election commission said Pashinyan's Civil Contract party won 53.9% of the vote. Former President Robert Kocharyan's bloc was a distant second with about 21%. (Tigran Mehrabyan/PAN Photo via AP)

YEREVAN – Results released Monday showed that the party of Armenia’s acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan won snap parliamentary elections which he called to ease anger over a peace deal he signed with Azerbaijan.

With all precincts counted, Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party won 53.9% of the vote. A bloc led by former President Robert Kocharyan was in a distant second place with about 21%, the election commission said Monday.

Speaking at a rally of his supporters that drew about 10,000 on Monday night, Pashinyan declared that the political crisis in the country was over and called for reconciliation.

“There was some aggressive rhetoric during the campaign,” he said. “I'm urging all participants in the political process in Armenia to start from a simple thing — put an end to acrimony. We are opening a new page in the history of Armenia ... and we must start from unification.”

Pashinyan called the early election after months of protests demanding his resignation because of the peace deal that he signed to end six weeks of fighting with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The agreement, denounced by protesters as a betrayal of national interests, saw Azerbaijan reclaim control over large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas that had been held by Armenian forces for more than a quarter-century.

The results of the Sunday vote, however, indicate that Pashinyan, a 46-year-old former journalist who came to power after leading large street protests in 2018 that ousted his predecessor, continued to enjoy broad support despite the humiliating defeat, with fewer Armenians willing to vote for those who ran the country before him.

“This is much less an endorsement of Pashinyan, but much more a refusal of Armenians to go back to the former authoritarian regime of the past,” Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center, told The Associated Press, adding that Kocharyan, Pashinyan's main challenger, underestimated the acting prime minister's “power and appeal.”

Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but had been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by the government in Yerevan since a separatist war ended in 1994, leaving the region and substantial surrounding territory in Armenian hands.

Hostilities flared in late September 2020, and the Azerbaijani military pushed deep into Nagorno-Karabakh and nearby areas in six weeks of fighting involving heavy artillery and drones that killed more than 6,000 people.

Pashinyan has defended the deal as a painful but necessary move that prevented Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region.

After calling the election, he stepped down from the premiership as required by law to allow the vote to take place but remained the country’s leader as acting prime minister.

Sunday’s ballot involved 21 political parties and four electoral blocs. Despite the high emotions over the war defeat and the calls for Pashinyan to resign, turnout was lukewarm — only 49% of eligible voters cast ballots.

A bloc affiliated with another former president, Serzh Sargsyan, came third with 5.2%, and another party had nearly 4%. Blocs need 7% to get into parliament and parties need 5%. However Armenia’s laws allow a party or bloc that came third to get seats if only two political forces pass the threshold to get into parliament.

Pashinyan's party showed a strong lead early into the count, and the acting prime minister claimed victory hours before all the precincts were counted.

“We have overcome these tough times, and now it’s time to stand up and go forward,” Pashinyan said in a televised address at the party’s headquarters.

The Armenia Alliance led by his main opponent Kocharyan has refused to accept the results of the vote and promised to contest them in the Constitutional Court. “We have legitimate reasons to maintain that the official results of the election don't represent the real state of play,” the bloc said in a statement. “According to our observations and information from local headquarters, numerous violations took place long before the election day.”

Allegations in the statement included the use of administrative resources and efforts to intimidate voters, power outages in several areas of country during vote counting, “steered voting” in the military, and suspicions of result manipulation.

After the results from all precincts were released by Armenia's election commission, Pashinyan tweeted that “in the newly-elected parliament the Civil Contract party will have a constitutional majority," with at least 71 seats out of 105, "and will form a government led by me.”

In Russia — Armenia's major ally — Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Pashinyan won a “convincing victory.”

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a statement that the elections were “competitive and generally well-managed within a short timeframe.” The OSCE observers noted that they were “characterized by intense polarization and marred by increasingly inflammatory rhetoric among key contestants,” but assessed the election day and the vote count “positively overall.”

The results of the vote didn't spark any immediate protests, and Giragosian of the Regional Studies Center said it might prove a challenge for the opposition to mobilize significant numbers of demonstrators at this point: “People are resigned, but also happy that the election is over, and they want to move on,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Daria Litvinova contributed from Moscow.