It was with great disappointment that I read this week, like many of you, that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his parliamentary majority (My Step alliance) have backed away from the proposal of holding snap parliamentary elections. Frankly, our feelings about Pashinyan are somewhat secondary. After the devastating losses from the Artsakh War, the issue before us is about recovery and how best to move the nation forward. Clearly, the Armenian people have several opinions about who should be empowered to lead the country. For a variety of different reasons at least, a strong plurality seems to have lost confidence in the current prime minister to politically recover and continue leadership. Some are motivated by a return of the reactionary forces of the recent past. For others, it is simply unacceptable for a government that lost so much territory and so many young lives in defeat to continue. Still others hope to gain some semblance of power in the vacuum created by the exit of the Pashinyan government. What I find particularly distasteful is that all of the forces in play seem to covet power and politics more than the stability of the country. Contributing to the current instability and vulnerability is not a patriotic act. Whether they care to admit it or not, the current government operates like a lame duck administration. Confidence in the Prime Minister is low, yet he continues in denial by believing that attitudes will recover. What the political forces are ignoring is the longer the standoff goes on between the My Step alliance and the “group of 17” opposition, the third and most important party, the common citizens, will suffer. This is unacceptable to any Armenian with regard to the future.
Since November, Armenians have been represented in the trilateral talks with Russia and Azerbaijan by a defeated government. Regardless of the government publishing six-month recovery plans and participating in diplomatic forums, they carry very little leverage. Azerbaijan, basking in their criminal assault, regards Armenia as a defeated enemy. Russia operates as a surrogate parent disciplining a wayward child. The opposition and internal confusion in the government only further emboldens the other parties to seal the details before Armenia politically recovers. In that regard, Pashinyan’s refusal to support new elections is enabling this subordination. We don’t view the Sargsyan era with fondness, but at least he resigned after realizing that he was an obstacle and had few options. This led to a constitutionally driven process of new elections with Pashinyan emerging as the Prime Minister.
Governments and leaders serve at the will of the people.
The public outcry, intolerance for corruption and street protests were the extraordinary events that led to the Sargsyan/Pashinyan transition. The catalyst of change is sometimes internal events (corruption) and at times external events (Armenia’s defeat in the Artsakh War). Pashinyan has spoken many times in his nearly three years in government service about “the people” and “the citizens” as the source of his authority. He has stated that he is accountable to them. After such a foundation-shaking experience as the humiliating outcome of the unilateral assault of the pan-Turkic alliance, new elections are the only process to determine if the confidence of the people remains. With snap elections, the citizens of Armenia will either confirm their confidence in his alliance and his position as prime minister, or they will empower another political alliance to lead the country forward. Granted, the alternative options carry their own risks, but democracy is not a certain process. Pashinyan does not have the right to judge the options; that is the responsibility of the people in a democratic society. We must trust the decision of the people in a free expression of will. Unfortunately, the prime minister seems to be attempting to make that decision for the citizens by assuming that his leadership is a better option than any other possible outcome. This is incompatible with the values of the Velvet Revolution. Governments and leaders serve at the will of the people. When their ability to effectively serve is hampered, their tenure ends. It is a patriotic act to know when that moment is, because it confirms the primacy of the nation. In my view, Nikol should always be remembered as the one who led the restoration of hope in Armenia, without which there can be no sustainable progress. If he were to resign and allow a constitutional parliamentary process to proceed, it would be an honorable act that should be viewed favorably. It is probable that Russia is not encouraging this, because the current instability makes controlling Armenia more predictable. If we cannot trust the citizens of Armenia, then why do we advocate for sovereignty?
When their ability to effectively serve is hampered, their tenure ends.
The parliamentary system of democracy in Armenia manages change in governments in a different way than the presidential-based system in the United States. Each is designed to address power distribution with checks and balances. As we have recently witnessed in this country, although a president can be impeached by a simple majority of the House, it is quite difficult to meet the two-thirds threshold in the Senate for conviction. As a result, change at the top happens through scheduled national elections every four years. Once a president is elected, it is a four-year tenure. The only exceptions in modern times are deaths in office (FDR and JFK) or resignation (Nixon). There are constitutional provisions for change (14th and 25th Amendments) but have never been invoked. In contrast, the prime minister elections are a result of the parliamentary majority or coalition of parties with MPs. The prime minister is usually the leader of the party or agreed upon as the result of a coalition. Changes in leadership can occur during regularly scheduled parliamentary elections when the majority party loses its position. It is also possible to introduce change when the PM resigns (as the opposition is demanding in Armenia) or if a vote of no confidence passes in parliament (this is less likely unless the My Step alliance which holds a majority of seats chooses not to support the prime minister). In either case, the parliament is given a number of days with two opportunities to elect a new prime minister. If they fail, new parliamentary elections are scheduled. It is a complex process but does open a number of electoral options for change within the regular electoral window.
It is a patriotic act to know when that moment is, because it confirms the primacy of the nation
Taken in the context of the current crisis, or shall we say deadlock, many of the options are linked to the majority that the My Step alliance holds. They effectively can block any parliamentary vote for new elections and control any resignation. The opposition of 17, the vast majority of whom hold no mandates in the current parliament, are relying on essentially external pressure to appeal to common citizens and force the ruling party (led by Pashinyan) to act based on their failures. Public response to the “opposition” has been mixed. There are concerns about not returning to the corrupt parties of the past, and the unity candidate has not held office in over 27 years. President Armen Sarkissian, who has been recovering from COVID-19, has been understandably quiet over the last few weeks. He is expected to resume public life this week. With few constitutional options, the opposition is not backing off from its rhetoric. With parliamentary control and a fairly tepid street response from the public, Pashinyan feels that time is on his side. That may be true for his political motives, but Armenia needs a sense of urgency in stabilizing its government and improving its impact.
My sense is that many Armenians are returning to the hopeless and ambivalent pre-2018 days. This is alarming since the people are the main check and balance to prevent a return to the darker past. This is what both the opposition and government should consider as the most important factor. Their self interests are of far lesser concern, and they should not simply assume their views are aligned with the will of the people. Pashinyan must allow snap elections to enable the voice of the people to be heard. The opposition needs to back off on the rhetoric that makes the process look like a power grab. Honestly, if they prevailed, what do you think the “17” would do after elections? They will quickly splinter and evolve to political adversaries as their unifying factor (Pashinyan) fades. The answer lies in both factions negotiating as patriots—not political enemies—and to agree to elections with party alignments that will give the population clear choices. In other words, act like the leaders they claim to be. Calls for a “unity government” must go beyond the adversarial rhetoric and contain all major factions. If we choose to continue the stalemate, then it has become apparent that all factions have to choose power or sovereignty. There is no greater risk to Armenia than her enemies taking advantage of the political instability and a citizenry paralyzed by hopelessness. Choosing a side may exercise free expression, but in reality does little to resolve the crisis. The more pressure extended causes each side to harden their position to prevent losing face. If the My Step alliance is confident that they are supported by a majority of the citizens, then they should have no fear of the consequences of snap elections. The wall of opposition should begin sharing substantive policy proposals. It is dangerous to campaign simply in opposition to the current government. Operating on a platform that is overwhelmingly focused on removing the current leader is a result, not a governing strategy. Talk about the plans for the future of Armenia and how they differ from Pashinyan’s plans. Give the people a real choice. Most importantly, this matter should be resolved at the negotiating table with an agreement that will move the nation off the current deadlock. There is no room for political standoffs to see who blinks first while the future of Armenia is at stake. Get in a room, and don’t come out until there is an agreement on how to enable the will of the people.