Armenia's sole PM candidate warns of protest 'tsunami' if his bid is denied

Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan on Tuesday warned the ruling elite it could face a “tsunami” of anger from the people if it blocks his bid to become prime minister after mass protests forced the previous holder of the post to step down.

With tens of thousands of his supporters rallying in the streets of the Armenian capital, Pashinyan sought to persuade parliament — dominated by supporters of ousted Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan — to approve his appointment in a vote.

But members of the ruling Republican Party, whose backing Pashinyan would need to become prime minister, used a debate in parliament to question his fitness for the job. A vote on his candidacy is expected later on Tuesday.

The crisis in ex-Soviet Armenia, a close Kremlin ally with Russian military bases on its territory, is being closely watched in Moscow. Officials there are wary of a repeat of a popular revolt in Ukraine that swept to power new leaders who pulled away from Moscow’s orbit.

Speaking in parliament, Pashinyan, a 42-year-old former journalist, told lawmakers they should not snub the Armenian people’s demands for change.

“You would think that in the situation that has unfolded conclusions would have been drawn, but the Republican Party has started to play cat-and-mouse with the people,” said Pashinyan, who had swapped his usual camouflage T-shirt for a suit and tie.

Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan addresses lawmakers during a parliament session to elect an interim prime minister in Yerevan. (Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure/Reuters)

Addressing Republican Party officials, he said: “Your behaviour, treating the tolerance of the people as a weakness, could become the cause of a tsunami.”

“I turn to the nation of the Republic of Armenia and every citizen of the Republic of Armenia,” Pashinyan said in speech broadcast live on big screens to the crowd in the capital’s central Republic Square.

“Don’t stay at home, and right now, go out into the streets if you have not done it yet.… Flood out onto the streets and the squares of the capital and other towns in the republic.”

Fitness as a leader is questioned

Pashinyan has pledged to keep Armenia close to Moscow, saying the changes he wants to make would instead focus on rooting out graft.

He is the sole nominee for the prime minister’s job and the Republican Party has said it would not oppose his candidacy. However, it could still block him from winning the job by withholding its support.

Pashinyan has received the support of opposition parties which together hold 47 seats in the 105-seat legislature, but he will require a majority to win.

At least 20,000 supporters of Armenia’s opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan rallied in the centre of the capital on Tuesday.(Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images)

During the parliamentary debate, Republican Party lawmakers accused Pashinyan of being an irresponsible rabble-rouser, they alleged he recruited children to join his protest movement and said he lacked the qualities to command the Armenian armed forces.

As Pashinyan spoke in parliament, supporters in the square waved the Armenian flag and carried balloons in the national colours. They blew horns and chanted “Nikol — prime minister!”

“I’m sure we will win today. Armenia will win!” said Suren Gevorkyan, a 19-year-old student wearing a T-shirt with Pashinyan’s portrait.

Protests in Armenia, an ex-Soviet state of three million people, flared when Sargsyan announced he was seeking to become prime minister. He had been president since 2008, but was limited by the constitution from seeking another term.

A constitutional amendment approved in 2015 by referendum effectively abolished direct presidential elections, instead allowing parliament to elect a president with a three-quarters majority. The presidency was then to become largely ceremonial, with power resting with the prime minister.

Some Armenians saw Sargsyan’s bid for the prime minister’s job as a cynical ploy to extend his grip on power. Armenia has been ruled by the same cadre of people since the late 1990s, and some voters accuse them of cronyism and corruption.

Vahram Baghdasaryan, parliamentary leader of the Republican Party, told reporters it would announce its unanimous decision on Pashinyan’s candidacy later in the session.

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