Protesters filled the streets of Yerevan for the first time since the spring, as Armenia experienced its most serious political crisis since the country's new government took power in May. In a move Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called the “counter-revolution,” his erstwhile allies abandoned him and backed the former ruling party in an effort to block him from holding early elections.
Following the landslide victory of his party in September 23 municipal elections in Yerevan, Pashinyan began an effort to move up the dates of parliamentary elections to December. His party still represents only a small minority in the National Assembly, and new elections would appear likely to give Pashinyan a much stronger representation.
"Political events have shown that we should hold snap parliamentary elections very quickly because political uncertainties are preventing new investments in our economy,” Pashinyan said the day following the Yerevan elections, in which his slate got 81 percent of the vote. “I believe that these elections also showed that the current parliament does not in fact have a mandate, because the parliamentary forces have collected very few votes."
On October 2, Pashinyan's foes struck back. Members of parliament, led by the formerly ruling Republican Party of Armenia, made it known that they planned to hold a vote the following day on a law that would change what would happen in the case that parliament was unable to hold sessions. The technical rule change appeared to be a ploy to prevent Pashinyan from gathering protesters to block parliament from meeting, and thus forcing new elections.
Pashinyan responded by threatening a reprise of the protests in the spring that propelled him to power. In a Facebook broadcast, he told supporters: “I have talked to the Republican party and urged them to not make the counterrevolution official. If I don’t hear from them by evening I need you to come out to the streets.”
In response, the backers of the law sped up the vote and held it the evening of October 2.
The legislation was initiated by Arpine Hovhannisyan, a Republican MP, and backed by members of the Prosperous Armenia and Armenian Revolutionary Federation parties. The latter two parties had formed a minority government with Pashinyan's Yelk bloc, but following the vote Pashinyan fired the seven ministers in the government from those parties.
Ahead of the vote, two Yelk members – Lena Nazaryan and Hayk Konjoryan – attempted to disrupt it by taking away the electronic “cards” that MPs use to vote from other parties' members. The vote was ultimately held by a show of hands, and the session was not broadcast, as is standard procedure.
“This gang is trying to take Armenians' rights away from them,” said another Yelk MP, Sasun Mikaelyan, following the vote. “This is not a vote, it's a robbery.”
Following news that the vote had succeeded, people heeded Pashinyan's calls and went to the streets in the thousands. Some supporters marched to the parliament and blocked the exits, while others formed roadblocks along the streets surrounding the parliament building, checking all cars going in and out to prevent MPs from leaving the scene. Some protesters reprised the “Icelandic clap” that had become a signature of the spring protests. Other, smaller protests erupted in the second city of Gyumri and other parts of the country.
Pashinyan addressed the crowd at the parliament repeatedly throughout the evening. He urged them to remain peaceful, announced that he intended to fire the ministers and governors from the rebellious parties, and called on President Armen Sarkissian – the nominal head of state who must sign legislation for it to become law – to use his veto. He called for elections to be held “in late November or early December.”
He also said he intended to resign in an attempt to force a resolution of the crisis. “After the firings of the ministers goes into effect, I’m going to resign,” he told the crowd. According to current law, parliament has to elect a new prime minister within eight days. If they fail twice to pick a new premier, parliament will be disbanded. “If they choose a new one, then they chose a new one, if they don’t elect a new prime minister then we will have to have snap elections.”
Eventually he headed into the building to conduct negotiations with Ara Babloyan, the Republican speaker of parliament. Past midnight, he emerged again and told the crowd: "It was a cordial, friendly atmosphere. We drank coffee, and talked. The conversation was not conclusive.”
Ani Mejlumyan is a journalist based in Yerevan.