Armenian protest leader set to be elected PM

Yerevan (AFP) –


The Armenian parliament is due to elect a new prime minister Tuesday with opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan set to take the post after spearheading weeks of mass protests against the ruling party.

The vote will be Pashinyan's second attempt to get elected as premier after the ruling Republican Party narrowly blocked his first bid on May 1, despite initially promising not to stand in the way.

That led to a crippling general strike in the capital Yerevan and other cities.

Pashinyan called for an end to the protests after the Republicans -- who have 58 MPs in the 105-seat legislature -- issued assurances they would back his candidacy on a second attempt.

The 42-year-old former newspaper editor has also secured the support of two other major political parties -- Prosperous Armenia and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) -- who nominated him for the post together with his opposition Elk coalition.

Pashinyan is the only candidate for the top job.

On Monday evening thousands of Pashinyan supporters rallied in Yerevan's central square, waving tricolour national flags and chanting his name.

"I am 95 percent sure that your candidate will be elected as prime minister tomorrow," Pashinyan told the cheering crowd.

Analysts have said it appeared the ruling party had changed position in a bid to retain control of the legislature.

- 'Period of disequilibrium ' -

Pashinyan's election as prime minister would not necessarily end the political crisis as the ruling party will retain a majority in parliament and is likely to block his initiatives.

If lawmakers fail to elect a prime minister a second time, parliament will be dissolved and early elections will take place.

In such an event, the deeply unpopular Republicans would have little chance of retaining their parliamentary majority.

Analyst Vigen Akopyan said snap elections are certain even if Pashinyan is chosen prime minister.

Another analyst, Stepan Safaryan, warned that Pashinyan would be caught between a rock and a hard place.

"Armenia is entering an interesting period of disequilibrium. Before the early elections Pashinyan must manoeuvre between the will of the people and the parliamentary ruling party that he does not belong to and which cannot begin supporting him," he said.

- Corruption and poverty -

The hugely popular Pashinyan has in recent weeks piled pressure on the ruling party through an unprecedented campaign of civil disobedience that plunged the Moscow-allied nation into its most serious political crisis in years.

It led to the shock resignation of veteran leader Serzh Sarkisian, a week after he shifted to the newly-empowered role of prime minister after having served ten years as president.

Observers have expressed concern that the turmoil could destabilise the country locked in a decades-long territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.

Pashinyan's protest movement had accused Sarkisian of a blatant power grab, saying he wanted to extend his grip on power by becoming premier after serving two consecutive terms as president.

In December 2015, controversial constitutional amendments initiated by Sarkisian were passed after a referendum that saw some 63 percent of the voters backing the country's transformation into a parliamentary republic with executive powers fully concentrated in the hands of a prime minister.

After the plebiscite, thousands of opposition supporters rallied against alleged mass violations at polling stations.

Council of Europe observers have said the referendum was marred by allegations of large-scale vote-buying and multiple voting, among other irregularities.

Critics accuse Sarkisian and his Republicans of corruption and failure to tackle widespread poverty and the influence of powerful oligarchs in the tiny South Caucasus nation of 2.9 million people.