OSCE in Armenia December 9, 2018.

OSCE in Armenia December 9, 2018.

Election The Snap Parliamentary Elections of December 9, 2018 as Confirmation of the “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia

December 9, 2018 marked a historic day in Armenia’s modern era as people went to the voting stations for a snap parliamentary election. The result rendered a landslide victory (70.4%) to acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step (Imkayl) coalition. The election was a consequence of the power shift which occurred nine months earlier in April 2018, during a popular uprising dubbed as the “Velvet Revolution”.

Published on balticworlds.com on January 12, 2019

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December 9, 2018 marked a historic day in Armenia’s modern era as people went to the voting stations for a snap parliamentary election. The result rendered a landslide victory (70.4%) to acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step (Im kayl) coalition, while ousting the former ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) which received only 4.7%, thus not clearing the 5% threshold.[1] In addition to “My Step” only two other parties had passed the threshold and secured parliamentary seats: Prosperous Armenia (Bargavatch Hayastan, BHK), 8.27% and Luminous Armenia (Lusavor Hayastan), 6.37%. The outcome was a dramatic change in the political landscape, not only entirely ousting the former ruling RPA, but also Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun, ARF), traditionally the strongest political party in the numerous and influential Armenian diaspora (ARF received 3.89%). Both RPA and ARF had a continuous mandate in the parliament ever since the regained independence in 1991.

The Developments Leading to the “Velvet Revolution”

The election was a consequence of the power shift which occurred nine months earlier in April 2018, during a popular uprising dubbed as the “Velvet Revolution”. As the outgoing President Serzh Sargsyan’s second and final term was coming to an end, many had predicted that his RPA would arrange for him to continue at the helm of the government, now as a prime minister with extended authorities than before.[2] The latter was due to the constitutional shift which had been approved in a referendum on December 8,  2015, changing Armenia’s semi-presidential rule to a fully parliamentarian republic. The change transferred much of the power from the presidential office to the prime minister, who now would possess the real executive power in the republic. The opposition, however, warned that this was nothing but an attempt by RPA to establish “a single political party-state.”[3]

These changes were made possible since at the time PRA enjoyed a solid parliamentarian majority (controlling 69 of 131 seats, i.e. 52.7%), allowing the party to push through the agenda they saw fit. RPA had been the dominating party in Armenia since the election in May 1999, when RPA, as part of the winning “Unity bloc,” formed a government. Ever since that time, the party had not only been in charge of the Armenian government but had also steadily increased its seats in the parliament. It should be mentioned that almost every single election during that period had been marred with allegations of voting violations and the opposition accused RPA of unjustly securing their continuous power. Nonetheless, with an exception of the violent unrest following the presidential elections on March 1, 2008, when Sargsyan was elected president for his first term,[4] Armenia have had a relatively stable political scene where the opposition was not able to gather sufficient power to challenge RPA. There was a constant public discontent regarding a widespread corruption, unemployment and social dismay leading to emigration etc., but without leading to an outspoken and consistent opposition to the ruling elite. This changed dramatically in April 2018. Once RPA, despite previous assurances by Sargsyan about not pursuing to continue as prime minister once his presidency term ended in April 2018, was nominated (April 7) and elected as new PM (April 17), it sparked a popular movement which would within a week force Sargsyan out of office (April 23). The former journalist turned politician and now leading the protests, Nikol Pashinyan, was elected new prime minister on May 9.

The Intermediate Politics prior to the Snap Election on December 9

It is safe to say that the whole ordeal had not only taken the Armenian nation by surprise, but the international community was equally unprepared. Given the appearance of a historically solid control of the political scene, albeit accused of fraud in attaining that control, the inability of the opposition to gather a unified front and a momentum to challenge RPA meant that few were expecting such a swift and, more significantly, a peaceful handover of the power. This image was e.g. reflected in a Washington Post article entitled “Did Armenia just dance its way to revolution?”[5] But, even though the popular movement had forced RPA to abandon its possession of government, they still had a solid position in the parliament. RPA had in the parliamentary elections of April 2, 2017 achieved 49% of the votes. Even after its coalition members left the cooperation shortly after Pashinyan was elected PM, either joining Pashinyan or becoming independent MPs in the parliament, RPA still possessed 50 of parliament’s 105 seats (Pashinayan’s coalition had 47, while 8 MPs were independent). This distribution of power obviously did not reflect the prevailing situation in the country and all parties agreed that there was a need for a snap election. There was, however, two main issues to address: a reform of the election laws and the timing of the snap election. Early on, it was indicated that such an election would be planned for early spring 2019.[6]

Pashinyan’s administration insisted that the existing elections laws needed reformation in order to strengthen the legal framework in the face of past accusations of fraud and election violations. Other than taking aim at the main issue of vote-buying and other irregularities, Pashaniyan’s administration also wanted to change the format of the voting lists as well as lowering the thresholds.[7] The new administration asserted that it would be beneficial to abandon the existing “open” lists (where local candidates could run individual campaigns) and instead have “closed” national lists where the voter would focus on the party or the bloc and their policies and ideologies rather than individuals who could manipulate the voter.[8] Referring to international studies, it was also suggested that the 5% threshold for a single party and 7% for a bloc/coalition should be lowered to 4% and 6% respectively.[9] Two independent commissions were created, one by the government and one interparliamentary to propose such changes.[10] From early on, however, it was reported that all parties were more or less in favor of the proposed changes while RPA opposed them, favoring the existing election laws.

In the meantime, there was another election which became highly interesting, namely the Yerevan City Council election, held on September 23, 2018, in which Pashinyan’s candidate received 81% of the votes, winning the office of Yerevan’s Mayor.[11] This election was of significant value due to several reasons: first, being home to around one million people, Yerevan represents one-third of Armenia’s entire population and is thereby an important political institution. Second, many viewed this election as a pointer for the future snap parliamentary elections. An interesting note was though the fact RPA refrained from running in the election, a decision interpreted by many as a token for how serious the situation was for the party.[12] It was argued that having lost the government position and with the prevailing political atmosphere in the country, RPA did not want to risk yet another potential loss in the City Council elections, but would rather spend time on rehabilitation in order to make a come-back in the envisioned snap election. Needless to say, emboldened by the outcome of the City Council election, Pashinyan evidently saw a prime opportunity to consolidate his power, announcing that the snap elections would be held in early December and not, as hinted earlier, during the spring of 2019.[13]

The announcement by Pashinyan triggered what many called an outright panic among other parties, including Pashinyan’s now coalition members BHK and ARF. Even though RPA had not participated in the City Council election, the 81% approval for Pashinyan’s candidate was an ill-boding omen for what was to happen in the announced snap election at a such a close proximity in time. BHK and ARF now sided with RPA who introduced a parliamentary bill to delay the snap election.[14] Pashinyan called the bill for “counterrevolutionary”, sacking the ministers and governors representing BHK and ARF. Instead, Pashinayn handed in his government’s resignation on October 16, forcing a snap parliamentary election to be held in the envisioned time frame.[15] The date was set to December 9.

Now another political struggle ensued in the parliament, namely the issue of the aforementioned amendments to the election laws. Being approved by the government on October 16, the amendments now needed to be confirmed by the parliament as well. According to Armenia’s constitution, any amendment to the Electoral Code must attain backing from at least three-fifths of the existing parliament (i.e. 63 of 105).[16] RPA’s objection to the bill was based on their assertion that similar changes should not be made in such short notice prior to an election. In addition, RPA also complained that Pashinyan’s administration had ignored alternatives proposed by the parliamentary commission in charge of proposing the amendments. On October 22, only 56 lawmakers voted in favor of the bill while most RPA MPs refused to participate.[17] The same pattern repeated itself a week later, on October 29, this time with a tacit support from the two ARF MPs who were absent at the voting session. The bill would have passed if only one of the two ARF MPs had voted for it.[18] Having failed a second time to approve the amendments, Pashinyan’s administration gave up the attempt to change the electoral code ahead of the December 9 election. It must be seen as an ironic twist that had RPA not blocked the amendments, although heavily curtailing their previous mandate, their 4.7% of the votes in the snap elections would have at least secured their presence in the parliament. As regard to ARF, some argued that the flip-flopping by the party was one of the main reasons for the subsequent loss of their parliamentary seats.[19]

The “Landslide Victory”, its Significance and Implications

The outcome of the December 9 election was rightfully described as a “landslide victory” for Pashinyan.[20] Having received more than 70% of the votes, Pashinyan had now secured a comfortable majority in the parliament. The election itself was seen as a major victory for the democracy in Armenia, especially when compared to previous ones and in regard to reported irregularities and observed violations, both prior and during the election day. Although far from prefect and still in need of further improvements, the OSCE observation mission noted that the elections “enjoyed broad public trust,” adding that “the general absence of electoral malfeasance, including of vote buying and pressure on voters, allowed for genuine competition.”[21] These remarks were probably the first of their kind in regard to elections held in Armenia for the past three decades since the independence in 1991. OSCE noted that “Amendments to the Election Code in May expanded the list of those prohibited from active campaigning, lifted restrictions on media observers, and increased penalties for electoral offences, including by making it a crime to force individuals to take part in campaigns or to facilitate vote-buying”.[22] While there were still issues which needed improvement, such as better transparency of campaign financing, non-inflammatory campaign rhetoric etc., the OSCE report underlined one important aspect of the recent developments, namely that “The confidence invested in the authorities brings responsibility to ensure that these positives are safeguarded.”[23] It is one thing to have heightened the hopes of the public and gained their trust and support by addressing three decades of mismanaged democracy, but an entire new ball game to maintain that trust and improve it further still.

There was, however, one issue which dampened the enthusiasm about the snap election, namely the poor turnout, reported to be just short of 49%.[24] This was a much lower turnout compared to e.g. the April 2017 parliamentary elections in which, according to the  presented data, about 61% of the voters had participated.[25] Given the popular support and the enthusiasm of the public during the “Velvet Revolution” in April 2018, but also the lively political debates and an apparent equal competitive landscape compared to earlier occasions, many thought that the turnout would be quite high. However, when the numbers from different voting stations started to come in during the election day, it became obvious that far fewer people were going to the ballots than anticipated. Both the Central Election Commission and representatives from the acting government meant that the low turnout was not that remarkable after all, referring to both bad weather as well as snap elections usually attracting lower participation.[26] These considerations notwithstanding, the lower turnout could, at least partly, indicate inconsistent voter registration lists, mainly due to emigrated citizens, a figure not reflected in the official statistics. This could in turn substantiate allegations about ballot-stuffing and similar violations during previous elections in which the ruling RPA received high number of votes. That the RPA votes had plummeted from 770,441 in the 2017 election to just 59,059 in the snap election could certainly be first and foremost explained by the prevailing political atmosphere. Nonetheless, past allegations by both opposition and international monitoring missions also made themselves conspicuous as a contributing factor.

The Expectations and Prospects of what Lies Ahead

All things considered, the unanimous verdict seems to be that the elections, especially the relative transparent and just manner of the conduct and the implementation, is perhaps the single most important achievement of the “Velvet Revolution”. Having that said, given the outcome of the elections, it would be justified to claim that the real revolution starts now. Having achieved a solid majority in the parliament, the Armenian people have mandated Pashinyan’s administration to lead the country and its reformation. It will certainly not be an easy task to quickly amend three decades (not to mention the similar circumstances during the preceding seven decades of Soviet rule) of mismanaged democratic institutions, economy and social life. The public has usually a short memory and an even shorter patience, demanding fast results. Enjoying a 70% majority in the parliament with virtually no political obstacles, one would say that it is time for Pashinyan to put his money where his mouth is. Others, as some comments on social media have put it, are instead worried about a “Macron effect” and whether the initial high expectations and confidence in Pashinyan, earning him a “landslide victory,” might equally soon turn into disappointment and even further loss of trust in authorities. There were also worries about the public viewing Pashinyan as a “Messiah figure,” accepting any statement or proposed step as an unchallenged edict. One such concern presented itself when former president Robert Kocharian was arrested, charged with allegations for “breaching Constitutional order” during the deadly clashes of  March 1, 2008.[27] Critics meant that the move was rather Pashinyan’s political vendetta against Kocharian.[28] Armenia’s first Prime Minister, Vazgen Manukyan, criticized the move stating that “Armenia has become a one-man show.”[29] Those close to him talk instead of a “a charismatic leader… with unlimited energy, righteousness,” although with “an appreciation for troublemaking.”[30] Hopefully, Pashinyan’s alleged personal integrity and sober mentality will prevail, breaking the stereotyping of “power corrupts”.

Many of these concerns are of course highly plausible and raise challenges which will only demand more expectations from the new administration. From a democratic perspective, the less diverse parliament, both in regard to the ousted parties but also the accumulated power in one single party, is the obvious concern.[31] On the other hand, one could claim that the broad public support has also empowered Pashinyan and his administration latitude to achieve the envisioned changes. At the same time, the “Velvet Revolution” and its aftermath has also shown that the public has not only rights but also liabilities, namely the responsibility to actively and continuously demand and participate in the democratic institutions of the country. As Robert Kennedy said: “Elections remind us not only of the rights but the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.”[32] There is of course more to this equation than the internal factors. Armenia is still entangled in the unresolved Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan. The conflict is not only tangible in form of an impending security threat, but it is also reason for a political and economic embargo by Azerbaijan and Turkey, which in turn has a noticeable impact on Armenia’s political development. The same is highly true about Azerbaijan. And of course, there is the omnipresence of Russia and how Moscow relates to this development in Armenia. The latter is certainly an important variable in the future developments in Armenia, noticeable in several articles evaluating the “Velvet Revolution.”[33] Over two millennia of Armenian statehood has shown that if left alone from outside intrusions, once Armenians have come across an authoritative and unifying leader, the country has prospered significantly during a relatively short period of time. Whether the “Velvet Revolution” adheres to that category remains to be seen.


[1] Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance wins landslide victory in general election, Armenpress, 10 December 2018; armenpress.am/eng/news/957591.html

[2] See Vahagn Avedian, “The 2017 Parliamentary Elections in Armenia”, in Baltic Worlds, 7 April 2017; balticworlds.com/the-2017-parliamentary-elections-in-armenia

[3] Heritage: Armenia constitutional reform is implemented to establish party-state, News.am, 4 September 2015; news.am/eng/news/284599.html

[4] See Eight killed in Armenia protests, BBC, 2 March 2008; news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7273497.stm

[5] Amie Ferris-Rotman, “Did Armenia just dance its way to revolution?”, Washington Post, 3 May 2018; washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/05/03/did-armenia-just-dance-its-way-to-revolution

[6] “First deputy PM announces Armenia’s plan to hold snap elections before April at meeting with US Congressman”, Armenpress, 20 July 2018; armenpress.am/eng/news/941336

[7] See e.g. “Armenian Government, Parliament Move to Amend Election Law”, Asbarez, 21 June 2018; asbarez.com/172993/armenian-government-parliament-move-to-amend-election-law

[8] Bradley Jardine, Armenia’s new government takes aim at vote-buying, Eurasianet, 31 August 2018; eurasianet.org/armenias-new-government-takes-aim-at-vote-buying

[9] ”Entrakan orensgrkibarepokhumnerihandznazhoghoviyerkrordniste”, Transparency International, Yerevan Office, 28 June 2018; transparency.am/hy/news/view/2408

[10] Each commission consisted of 12 members. The governmental one was appointed by the PM and consisted of ministers, representatives of the Central Election Commission, the Police and members from NGOs such as Transparency International Anticorruption Center etc. See “Pashinyannentrakanorensdrutyanbarepokhumneriveraberyalvoroshum e storagrel; handznazhoghov e steghtzum”, News.am, 20 June 2018; news.am/arm/news/457681.html. The second commission was appointed by the parliament and consisted of three members of each of the four parliamentary fractions. See Joint Statement of RA National Assembly Factions, National Assembly, 20 June 2018; parliament.am/news.php?cat_id=2&NewsID=10447&lang=eng.

[11] Armenian PM Pashinian’s Bloc Takes Landslide Election Victory in Yerevan, RFERL, 24 September 2018; rferl.org/a/armenian-yerevan-municipal-election-pashinian-bloc-massive-lead/29505443.html

[12] “HHKnmnatshakaheghapokhutyankokordin”, Lragir.am, 25 July 2018; lragir.am/2018/07/25/367058

[13] Armenia to hold snap parliamentary elections in December, Armradio.am, 2 October 2018; old.armradio.am/en/2018/10/02/armenia-to-hold-snap-parliamentary-elections-in-december/

[14] Tens Of Thousands Protest Outside Armenian Parliament Against ‘Counterrevolutionary’ Bill, RFERL, 2 October 2018; rferl.org/a/pashinian-supporters-protest-outside-armenian-parliament-against-counterrevolutionary-bill/29521911.html

[15] Armenian PM resigns to clear way for snap election, Reuters, 16 October 2018; reuters.com/article/us-armenia-politics/armenian-pm-resigns-to-clear-way-for-snap-election-idUSKCN1MQ2C1

[16] See Amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia, Article 103, item 2, National Assembly of Armenia, 6 December 2015; parliament.am/parliament.php?id=constitution&lang=eng#4

[17] Armenian parliament votes down changes to electoral code, Reuters, 22 October 2018; reuters.com/article/us-armenia-election/armenian-parliament-votes-down-changes-to-electoral-code-idUSKCN1MW2E0

[18] Parliament Again Fails To Pass Electoral Reform Bill, Asbarez, 29 October 2018; asbarez.com/175932/armenian-parliament-again-fails-to-pass-electoral-reform-bill

[19] “’Pochkhaghatsnelu’ hetevanke. Amotalipahvatzkechnervets”, Lragir, 10 December 2018; lragir.am/2018/12/10/402481

[20] See e.g. Armenia election: PM Nikol Pashinyan wins by landslide, BBC, 10 December 2018; bbc.com/news/world-europe-46502681.

[21] Broad public trust in Armenian elections needs to be preserved through further electoral reforms, international observers say, OSCE, 10 December 2018; osce.org/odihr/elections/405893

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] World press reacts to Pashinyan’s “landslide victory”, Armenpress, 10 December 2018; armenpress.am/eng/news/957618/

[25] Parliamentary election 2017: Central Electoral Commission sums up preliminary results of voting, Armenpress, 3 April 2017; armenpress.am/eng/news/885297

[26] CEC Chairman doesn’t consider voter turnout in snap elections low, Armenpress, 10 December 2018; armenpress.am/eng/news/957631. Armenia’s acting first deputy PM does not consider voter turnout to be low at today’s early NA elections, Aysor, 9 December 2018; aysor.am/en/news/2018/12/09/ararat-mirzoyan/1501816

[27] “2nd President of Armenia Robert Kocharyan remanded into custody by Yerevan court”, Armenpress, 28 July 2018; armenpress.am/eng/news/942062.html. The charges were later dropped, but a court ordered a new arrest order on December 6. See Armenian ex-president Kocharyan detained after court ruling – lawyer, Reuters, 7 December 2018; reuters.com/article/us-armenia-kocharyan/armenian-ex-president-kocharyan-detained-after-court-ruling-lawyer

[28] At the time, Pashinyan was the “oppositional new-comer” who led the demonstrations during March 2008. Shortly after Pashinyan went into hiding to avoid being arrested, but turned himself to the authorities in July 2009 after a general amnesty was declared by the government. He was nonetheless charged for “organizing mass disorders” and sentenced to jail but was freed in May2011 after serving half the sentence time. He ran in the October 2011 parliamentary elections and managed to be elected as MP.

[29] “Armenia’s first PM: The country has become a one-man show”, Mediamax, 30 July 2018; mediamax.am/en/news/politics/29609

[30]Nikol Pashinyan: Who is Armenia’s protest leader and probable next prime minister, Independent, 3 May 2018; independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/nikol-pashinyan-armenia-opposition-leader-prime-minister-biography-a8334861.html

[31] According to the Constitution of Armenia, the opposition bloc in an elected parliament must be guaranteed at least 30% of the sits. See Electoral Code of Republic of Armenia, Article 96, item 2, Venice Commission, Council of Europe, 25 April 2017; venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-REF(2017)023-e

[32] “Address of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy”, Justice Department, 6 October1962; justice.gov/sites/default/files/ag/legacy/2011/01/20/10-06-1962.pdf

[33] See e.g. Lucan Ahmad Way, “Why didn’t Putin interfere in Armenia’s Velvet Revolution?”, Foreign Affairs, 17 May 2018;  https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/armenia/2018-05-17/why-didnt-putin-interfere-armenias-velvet-revolution. Stephen Riegg, “Why Russia won’t interfere in Armenia’s velvet revolution”, RealClear World 8 May 2018; realclearworld.com/articles/2018/05/08/why_russia_wont_interfere_in_armenias_velvet_revolution_112792.html

  • by Vahagn Avedian

    Vahagn Avedian has a Ph.D. in history, specializing in research concerning the fields of genocide, human rights, peace and conflict and democracy.

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