Armenia PM rallies voters ahead of tense polls

·3-min read

Armenian Prime Nikol Pashinyan on Thursday urged voters to hand him a new mandate as around 20,000 supporters packed a central square in the capital Yerevan ahead of snap polls.

On Sunday, the small South Caucasus country holds early parliamentary polls called by Pashinyan in an attempt to diffuse a political crisis after a disastrous war with Azerbaijan last year.

"The moment of truth has arrived," declared Pashinyan, who turned up at the rally in the capital's Republic Square with his wife and children.

"On June 20 we will come to the polls to stage a steel revolution," he added as the crowd cheered and chanted "Nikol!"

During an aggressive campaign that sparked warnings from the country's rights ombudsman, he has urged voters to give him a "steel mandate" and brandished a hammer.

Many at Thursday's rally said Pashinyan should not be blamed for the mistakes of his predecessors and defended his track record.

"We do no not want the old regime to return," one supporter, Mikael Kirakosyan, told AFP.

The 60-year-old engineer-turned-businessman said that "anarchy and corruption" had reigned in the ex-Soviet country of three million people before Pashinyan came to power in 2018.

Karine Harutyunyan, a 53-year-old homemaker, said Pashinyan was an "honest" man.

"We trust him, we love him, we respect him!"

Pashinyan, a former newspaper editor, swept to power in 2018, spearheading peaceful protests against corrupt elites who ruled after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But many Armenians now feel betrayed, saying he led the country into a six-week war with arch-enemy Azerbaijan and signed an unpopular truce agreement last year. The war claimed more than 6,000 lives and saw Armenia cede swathes of territory to Azerbaijan.

"I will not vote for Pashinyan again," said Elya Martikyan, a 29-year-old nurse.

"He's good at making threats, at brandishing a hammer."

Many also fear that instead of bringing relief after the trauma of war the election could further polarise the country.

- 'Life and death' -

Polls show that Pashinyan's Civil Contract Party is neck-in-neck with ex-president Robert Kocharyan's electoral bloc.

Both politicians are also planning to hold multiple rallies after the election.

Pashinyan has said he expects his party to win 60 percent of the vote, an estimate some pollsters call "fantastical".

US-based political observer Arthur Martirosyan said Pashinyan would not go down without a fight and might mobilise his supporters if he loses.

"For him, it's a matter of life and death," Martirosyan, a senior consultant with conflict management firm CMPartners, told AFP. He said Pashinyan could face an inquiry over his handling of the war if he loses power.

A poll last week showed Kocharyan's bloc leading with 24.1 percent, followed by Pashinyan's party with 23.8 percent and ex-leader Serzh Sargsyan's bloc with 7.4 percent.

Aram Navasardyan who directs the pollster that carried out the survey, Marketing Professional Group (MPG), predicted that no one would get more than 30 percent of the vote.

A record four electoral blocs and 22 parties are running in the elections and most have campaigned on a pro-Russian platform.

Russia, a long-standing ally, helped broker the truce agreement with Azerbaijan and its peacekeepers have been deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Only a handful of parties are expected to win seats in parliament.

Pashinyan's rival Kocharyan, who led Armenia between 1998 and 2008 and counts Russian leader Vladimir Putin among his friends, claims to have handled the economy better than the current leadership.

Around 2.6 million people are eligible to vote in 2,008 precincts, to elect for a five-year term the minimum number of 101 parliament members under a proportional electoral system.

A party needs to garner at least 54 percent of seats in the legislature to form a government, and analysts do not rule out a second round of polls.

The election will be monitored by observers from the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

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