Late analysis suggests Pashinian to triumph in Armenia's June 20 election

Late analysis suggests Pashinian to triumph in Armenia's June 20 election
Will Pashinian's 'Velvet Revolution' popularity hold out?
By Neil Hauer in Yerevan June 18, 2021

Eve-of-election analysis has indicated that acting PM Nikol Pashinian is likely to triumph in June 20’s Armenian general election.

Despite recent reports of main opposition contender Robert Kocharyan moving ahead of Pashinian, fresh research casts doubt on the veracity of the polling data that indicates that that is the case. Some reliable sources now expect Pashinian to emerge victorious in the contest.

One recent widely cited opinion poll, from MPG/Gallup, showed Kocharyan, heading the new Armenia Alliance, with a slight lead over Pashinian, of the Civil Contract Party—which led the My Step coalition during his administration—ahead of election day. Yerevan-based political analyst Hrant Mikaelian and other analysts have, however, indicated that the poll is less than reliable, not that former president Kocharyan’s rise is not unmistakable.

Support rose as tension spiked

Rafael Oganesyan, a political scientist who is conducting his own academic surveys of the electorate, said that support for Kocharyan has risen as tension has spiked along Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan, where Azerbaijani troops have made small incursions and have on occasion captured Armenian soldiers.

Robert Kocharyan.
(Image: Daily Yerevan, screengrab).

“We noticed an increase in support for Kocharyan (and a decline for the job approval rating for Pashinyan) following the border incursions and kidnapping of Armenian soldiers by Azeri troops,” Oganesyan told Eurasianet in an email. “Thus, the spike in Kocharyan's support may be due to the (relative) increased salience of national security.” Still, he said, his numbers showed a significant lead, 28%-13%, for Pashinian over Kocharyan.

He added that he did not have data for after Azerbaijan’s June 12 release of 15 Armenian prisoners of war and whether that might further boost Pashinian.

Other polling data suggest a ceiling for Kocharyan’s support. The International Republican Institute in a May poll found that 45% of Armenians viewed Pashinian favorably, while 33% saw him unfavourably. Kocharyan’s numbers, meanwhile, were 20% and 58%. And that latter figure “is probably an underestimate,” said Richard Giragosian, the head of the Yerevan think tank Regional Studies Center.

Disappeared from public life

Kocharyan was president of Armenia from 1998 until 2008, and after stepping down he disappeared from public life. He left Armenia and since 2009 has served on the board of directors for Sistema PJSFC, one of Russia’s largest investment companies. (Sistema’s website lists him as a current board member.)

But he reemerged following Pashinian’s coming to power in 2018’s “Velvet Revolution”. One of Pashinian’s first acts as prime minister was to reinvestigate the events of March 2008, when protests broke out against the legitimacy of an election that gave the presidency to Kocharyan's ally and successor, Serzh Sargsyan. Government security forces violently broke up the protests and eight protesters and two police officers were killed. Pashinian was one of the organisers of those protests and spent more than a year in prison as a result.

Kocharyan returned to Armenia in July 2018 to be questioned in the case and was himself arrested the next month, beginning a years-long legal saga that saw him leave and return to jail several times before finally being acquitted in April 2021.

Kocharyan’s decision to return to Armenia to face justice contrasted with the approach taken by many other former regime figures who fled the country following Pashinian’s coming to power. In his court appearances he has been in noticeably good shape, and reports emerged of him maintaining an active business schedule in jail along with his workout routine. “He was never crying ‘Oh, they put me in jail,’” and that forbearance now makes him look strong among many voters, Mikaelian said.

As Pashinian sought to reform Armenia’s court system, it began to look more and more that the effort was revolving around the desire to keep Kocharyan in jail. And when current and former leaders of the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh government posted bail for Kocharyan in 2019, Pashinian viciously criticised the figures, opening a rift between Yerevan and Stepanakert.

‘Victim of vendetta’

All of that kept Kocharyan in the public eye. For many Armenians the campaign against Kocharyan amounted to delivering justice for the unpunished alleged crimes of his rule, but others saw him as the victim of a political vendetta.

During his time in jail he finished a memoir, published in 2018, in which a major theme was that while he was himself disinterested in power, he was repeatedly cajoled by others into taking leadership roles, first as the leader of the self-styled republic Nagorno-Karabakh in 1992 and then as prime minister of Armenia in 1997 (he was elected president the following year). He has returned to that theme on the campaign trail.

"All my close friends ask me ‘Why are you doing this [running for office]?’” he told a rally in the Tavush region on June 13. “And I always tell myself: ‘If not me, then who?’ I asked this question to myself in 1992, 1997 and I'm asking myself the same question now, today. It feels like it's my destiny to fix what others broke.”

Polls show that Kocharyan’s support is strongest in Armenia’s cities, while Pashinian enjoys an advantage in rural areas, where the current government has invested in infrastructure and development programmes. Rural people “can see the change after the revolution, and they may take into account what is closer to them rather than the political issues of war and relations with neighbouring countries,” one Western diplomat in Yerevan, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Eurasianet.

Among the urban middle class, by contrast, Kocharyan’s strength on issues of war and security resonates. He has formed a coalition with the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation – Dashnaktsutyun and campaigned as the tough-on-Azerbaijan candidate.

Kocharyan has repeatedly promised that he would regain some of the territories that Armenia lost during the war, in particular the Karabakh cities of Hadrut and Shusha (which Armenians spell Shushi). Another former president who is also standing in this election, Levon Ter-Petrossian, has criticised Kocharyan for unrealistic warmongering. “Azerbaijani troops are in Hadrut and Shushi, and we can only regain them through war. This means Robert Kocharyan is promising a new war and more victims,” he said in a June 15 interview on public television.

Popular militias

Kocharyan’s campaign has also proposed creating popular militias, in contrast to Pashinian’s promise to create a fully professional army. "It’s not the gun that shoots, but the person,” Kocharyan told the Tavush rally.

“Kocharyan’s alliance is very nationalistic,” the diplomat said. “It’s this patriotic line that is now important for many Armenians.”

Kocharyan’s campaign has been active, running more ads than Pashinian’s team. “This is perhaps a first for Armenian elections,” Oganesyan, the political scientist, said. “The presence of competition, combined with a large chunk of non-committed voters, is fuelling the campaigns to increase engagement with voters via rallies, party material, and overall ads. This is a net positive for electoral politics.” But, he added, “it remains to be seen whether their omnipresence can encourage people to the polls.”

Polls show large numbers of undecided voters, making the results especially unpredictable. Most analysts expect Kocharyan ultimately to fall short. “I see no scenario where Kocharyan wins the majority or plurality of the votes,” Oganesyan said. Analysts believe Pashinian’s voters are more likely to show up at the polls than are those for the opposition, and Kocharyan’s checkered past and high unfavourability ratings may ultimately catch up with him.