Supporters of Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan react, after his bid to be interim prime minister was blocked by the parliament, during a rally in central Yerevan, Armenia, May 1, 2018. (Gleb Garanich/REUTERS)

Armenian protesters gear up for general strike

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The leader of a grassroots Armenian protest movement that forced the country’s veteran leader to step down called for a nationwide strike after the ruling party thwarted his bid to take over as interim prime minister on Tuesday.

After a nine-hour acrimonious session, the National Assembly of Armenia voted 55-45 against electing Nikol Pashinyan as interim prime minister.

The 42-year-old charismatic opposition lawmaker and former journalist was the only candidate nominated to replace Serzh Sargsyan, who resigned as prime minister because of the protests.

Sargsyan, who had already served two terms as the country’s president, changed the constitution in 2015 to turn Armenia from a presidential republic where the executive power was held by the president, into a parliamentary republic where the executive power is held by the prime minister and the president plays a largely ceremonial role.

Sargsyan was forced to resign after tens of thousands of people flooded the streets in the capital of Yerevan and other cities and towns to protest his political maneuvering to cling to power despite repeated promises not to run for the position of the prime minister.

Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan attends a rally after his bid to be interim prime minister was blocked by the parliament in Yerevan, Armenia May 1, 2018. (Gleb Garanich/REUTERS)

Pashinyan, who spent two years in jail for fomenting unrest, was submitted to parliament as the only nominee for the vacant prime minister’s job.

Tens of thousands of opposition supporters had packed the central Republic Square Yerevan to support Pashinyan and watch the parliament hearings on two giant TV screens.

Tens of thousands of others in Armenia and in Diaspora communities scattered around the world watched the political spectacle online and on their TV sets.

Republican deputies accused Pashinian of exploiting the young people who have been his core supporters. Some said Pashinian doesn’t have a political platform to offer the country.

“I was hoping to hear a conceptual speech of a candidate for the prime minister, but instead I was witness to a non-program speech which sounds pleasant to people’s ears,” senior Republican party member Eduard Sharmazanov told the chamber.

Opposition supporters in the Republic Square shouted “Shame!” when the result of the vote was shown.

Pashinyan left the parliament building and rushed to the Republic Square where he was met by a jubilant crowd that declared him the “people’s prime minister.”

“We will block the streets, the airports, the metro, the railway, everything that can be blocked,” Pashinyan told his cheering supporters. “If everyone participates in a total act of civil disobedience, this will be a total victory of the people of Armenia. Our struggle is a struggle of non-violence, it is a peaceful act of civil disobedience.”

Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan addresses lawmakers during a parliament session to elect an interim prime minister in Yerevan, Armenia May 1, 2018. (Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure/REUTERS)

The outcome of the vote in the National Assembly is likely to plunge Armenia deeper into an unpredictable political crisis, said Anna Simonian, a former Armenian communications expert and blogger who settled in Montreal six years ago.

“I knew the election today would be too good to be true,” Simonian said in a phone interview. “I am not a great supporter of street protests, I am not a great supporter of direct democracy, but unfortunately the Armenian state has failed so far to institutionalize democracy, it has failed to provide the mechanism and institutes for people to keep their government accountable.”

(click to listen to the full interview with Anna Simonian)

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The planned day of protest in the small former Soviet republic sets up a standoff between Pashinyan’s movement, which has mobilised and galvanized thousands of people to take to the streets, and a ruling elite which is determined to cling on to power it has held for the last 20 years and still controls the security apparatus.

“I know very well that the ruling elite, cornered as it is, it’s going to fight, it’s going to fight as much as they are able,” Simonian said. “And today’s election with all the obstructionism they had since this morning, it was obvious that the vote was going to fail.”

Supporters of Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan react, after his bid to be interim prime minister was blocked by the parliament, during a rally in central Yerevan, Armenia May 1, 2018. (Gleb Garanich/REUTERS)

Many people worry that the governing Republican Party could provoke unrest in order to have a legitimate reason to crack down on the protest movement, which has been remarkably peaceful so far, Simonian said.

“One thing I know for certain the young generation that has taken to streets will not be as easy to manage as the older generations including ours were,” Simonian said. “These kids are there to win, it will be very difficult to put them back in their houses now that they have that they can get an acting leader of the country resign because they don’t want him.”

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press

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