A polarised Armenia is preparing to vote in snap parliamentary elections viewed as a test of whether hard-won democracy can survive the political turmoil caused by defeat in last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The outcome of Sunday’s election will define post-war Armenia and the future of a 30-year conflict with Azerbaijan, yet many voters are undecided in what is seen by some as a choice between bad and worse.
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Four blocs and 22 parties will go up against caretaker prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, who stepped down in April following months of protests over his signing of a peace deal last year that ended six weeks of fighting.
At least 6,000 people, from both sides, died in the conflict, most of them soldiers.
The agreement, brokered by Russia, was widely seen as favouring arch foe Azerbaijan and saw Armenia return swathes of territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh to its neighbour, but Pashinyan has insisted he had no choice in the face of even heavier losses.
In what experts say are perhaps the most competitive elections in the history of modern Armenia, four former leaders of the current republic are participating in the parliamentary election.
With threats and insults being exchanged and populist rhetoric rife, some believe there is a risk of confrontation spilling into the streets.
The frontrunners include Pashinyan, a former journalist who came to power after spearheading peaceful protests in 2018 dubbed the Velvet Revolution, and Robert Kocharyan, an ex-president who to some represents a corrupt old guard that was deposed in the uprisings.
While Pashinyan and his Civil Contract party promised during their time in office to separate business from politics, Kocharyan still faces a bribery investigation over an alleged $3m bribe from a businesswoman during his final months as president in 2008.
In total, six of the candidates are facing criminal charges.
Kocharyan, heading the Armenian Alliance, is also a former leader of Nagorno-Karabakh and hails from its capital, Stepanakert.
He is positioning himself as an experienced and security-minded politician who is coming out of retirement to steer Armenia through difficult times.
But a lack of faith in current and former authorities could translate into low voter turnout.
According to a March poll by the US-based International Republican Institute, more than 40 percent of respondents said they would not vote in an election.
Voters interviewed by Al Jazeera expressed apathy towards all sides of the political spectrum.
Georgi Ghahramanyan, 37, a linguist from the capital Yerevan, will vote for Kocharyan because “in the given situation you chose the lesser of two evils”.
“He is charismatic and strong-willed so I think he is more able to handle the current situation instead of just saying empty words,” he said.
If any party or bloc fails to get 50 percent of the vote, a second round will be held between the two parties with the most votes.
Experts warned that there are already signs that if this happens, politicians may call their supporters to the streets.
“I don’t support Pashinyan, but anything is better than having the Kocharyan regime back,” said Alex Mekhitarian, 42, a teacher.
Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Centre think tank, said that Kocharyan “represents the Jurassic Park of Armenian politics – the revenge of the dinosaurs”.
He expects Pashinyan to win with a reduced majority.
“Undecided voters will be the key swing vote that will probably go in favour of the government, not because they like them or support Pashinyan, but because the opposition is more dangerous,” he said.
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict casts a shadow over poll
The opposition is yet to declare what it would have done differently either during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which began in September last year, or after.
In the minds of many in Armenia, the country is still in a state of war – intermittent skirmishes and ceasefire breaches continue along the border.
Last week, Baku handed over 15 prisoners of war (POW) in exchange for a map detailing the location of landmines in Agdam, a region ceded to it under the November peace deal.
But the outcome of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains a central issue for many Armenians, as does the continued presence of Russian peacekeepers in the area under the terms of the agreement Moscow helped orchestrate.
“No matter who governs, the country is now much more firmly in the orbit of Russia,” said Giragosian, who believes that Moscow prefers Pashinyan to win.
“Armenia for the Kremlin is the exact opposite of Belarus – Pashinyan as a legitimate, democratically elected leader is a useful trophy for President [Vladimir] Putin, unlike [Alexander] Lukashenko.”
Narek Minasyan, a senior expert at the government-backed Orbeli analytical centre, whose opening Pashinyan attended, said the likelihood of another large-scale confrontation with Azerbaijan in the short term is low, but issues such as POWs have become politicised.
He said that the elections would “answer several key questions about society”.
“Do the citizens of Armenia want the continuation of the 2018 revolution and the process of democratisation? Do they consider this stage of history a failure? Do they prefer the former authoritarian leaders who are trying to position themselves as ‘crisis managers’ in order to overcome the crisis?,” said Minasyan.
“Some people believe that after the war, the wounds are so deep that elections will not bring stability, but will instead deepen the crisis.”