A polarized Armenia is preparing to vote in snap parliamentary elections, seen as a test of whether a hard-won democracy can survive the political turmoil caused by the defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict last year.
Sunday’s election result will define post-war Armenia and the future of a 30-year conflict with Azerbaijan, but many voters are undecided on what some see as a choice between evil and the worst.
Four blocs and 22 parties will face acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who resigned in April after months of protests against his signing of a peace deal last year that ended six weeks of fighting.
At least 6,000 people on both sides have died in the conflict, most of them soldiers.
The deal, brokered by Russia, was widely seen as favoring Azerbaijan’s nemesis and saw Armenia handing over swathes of territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh to its neighbor, but Pashinyan insisted on the fact that he had no choice in the face of even greater losses.
In what experts say may be the most competitive elections in modern Armenian history, four former leaders of the current republic are taking part in parliamentary elections.
With the exchange of threats and insults and populist rhetoric, some believe there is a risk of confrontation spilling out into the streets.
Favorites include Pashinyan, a former journalist who came to power after spearheading peaceful protests in 2018 dubbed the Velvet Revolution, and Robert Kocharyan, a former president who some say represents a corrupt old guard who has been overturned during uprisings.
While Pashinyan and his Civil Contract Party vowed during their tenure to separate business from politics, Kocharyan remains under investigation for corruption over an alleged $ 3 million bribe from a businesswoman during her final months as president in 2008.
In total, six of the candidates face criminal charges.
Kocharyan, head of the Armenian Alliance, is also a former leader of Nagorno-Karabakh and hails from its capital, Stepanakert.
He positions himself as an experienced and security-conscious politician coming out of retirement to guide Armenia through difficult times.
But a lack of confidence in current and former authorities could translate into low voter turnout.
According to a poll conducted in March by the United States-based International Republican Institute, more than 40% of those polled 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, linguist from the capital Yerevan, will vote for Kocharyan because “in the given situation, you have chosen the lesser of two evils”.
“He’s charismatic and willful, so I think he’s more capable of handling the current situation instead of just saying empty words,” he said.
If a party or a bloc does not obtain 50% of the votes, a second round will be organized between the two parties having obtained the most votes.
Experts have warned that there are already signs that if this happens, politicians could call their supporters to take to the streets.
“I do not support Pashinyan, but anything is better than the return of the Kocharyan regime,” said Alex Mekhitarian, 42, teacher.
Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Center for Regional Studies think tank, said Kocharyan “represents the Jurassic Park of Armenian politics – revenge of the dinosaurs.”
He expects Pashinyan to win by a reduced majority.
“Undecided voters will be the deciding vote that is likely to go in favor 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 on the ballot
The opposition has yet to say 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 at war – intermittent skirmishes and ceasefire violations continue along the border.
Baku last week handed over 15 prisoners of war (PW) in exchange for a map detailing the location of landmines in Agdam, an area ceded to it as part of the November peace agreement.
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 region under the terms of the deal that Moscow helped orchestrate.
“It doesn’t matter who rules, the country is now much more firmly in Russia’s orbit,” said Giragosian, who believes Moscow prefers Pachinian to win.
“Armenia for the Kremlin is the exact opposite of Belarus – Pashinyan as a legitimate and democratically elected leader is a useful trophy for the president [Vladimir] Putin, unlike [Alexander] Lukashenko.
Narek Minasyan, senior expert at the government-backed Orbeli Analysis Center, which Pashinyan witnessed opening, said the likelihood of another large-scale confrontation with Azerbaijan in the near term is low, but that issues such as prisoners of war have become politicized.
He said the elections “would answer several key questions about society.”
“Do Armenian citizens want the 2018 revolution and the democratization process to continue? Do they see this stage of history as a failure? Do they prefer the former authoritarian leaders who are trying to position themselves as “crisis managers” to overcome the crisis? Minasyan said.
“Some people believe that after the war the wounds run so deep that the elections will not bring stability, but will instead worsen the crisis.”