Armenia’s new leader consolidates

Readers might remember that one of the good news stories of 2018 was a largely peaceful revolution in Armenia in April-May in which popular protests forced the resignation of the government of Serzh Sargsyan, whose democratic credentials were dubious at best.

Opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan took his place and after a few months decided, understandably enough, to capitalise on his popularity with an early election. It was held the Sunday before last, 9 December.

The electoral system is straight proportional representation (D’Hondt) across the whole country, with a threshold of 5% and a few interesting refinements. A minimum of three parties have to be represented, so in effect the third placegetter is exempt from the threshold. And there’s a ceiling of two-thirds for a majority party: if it wins more than that, extra seats are given to the other parties to bring them up to a third of the total.

As it happens, this last provision was needed. Pashinyan’s My Step alliance won 70.4% of the vote, giving it 88 seats out of what would have been 105. So bonus seats were awarded to the two other parties that cleared the threshold: Prosperous Armenia, which finished with 26 seats for its 8.3%, and Bright Armenia, with 18 from 6.4%.

The previous ruling party, the Republican Party of Armenia, just fell short with 4.7%, while the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, also represented in the previous parliament, had 3.9%.

This must be a bit galling for the Republicans, since they had blocked Pashinyan’s proposed electoral reforms in October, which would have lowered the threshold to 4% and increased the minimum number of parties to four. They had argued, not unreasonably, that it was undemocratic to change the rules so close to an election.

But Pashinyan now has the clear mandate he wanted to deal with Armenia’s assorted economic and political problems. As is always the case in the Caucasus, he will be doing so with one eye on Russian reactions; the new government is clearly more pro-western than its predecessor, and there are concerns about how well that is playing in Moscow.

Russia has troops based in Armenia, but there is no common border and no substantial Russian minority, so any serious Russian intervention would involve both logistical and public relations difficulties. Unless he decides to be gratuitously offensive to Vladimir Putin, Pashinyan will probably have a fair bit of scope.

And the reality is that, as a small Christian country with unfriendly Muslim neighbors (Turkey and Azerbaijan), Armenia has every reason to maintain the Russian alliance. Pashinyan’s task will be to balance that with political and economic reform, and it’s likely that the region will be a safer place if he succeeds.

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