YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Polls have closed in Armenia’s national parliamentary election that was held to try to resolve tensions over last year’s defeat in fighting against Azerbaijan over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Sunday’s early election was called by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in a bid to ease public anger over the peace deal he signed in November, which set off months of protests demanding his resignation.
The Moscow-brokered agreement ended six weeks of fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, but saw Azerbaijan reclaim control over large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas that had been held by Armenian forces for more than a quarter-century.
Thousands of Armenians took to the streets in the capital of Yerevan to protest the deal as a betrayal of their national interests.
Despite the high emotions over the war defeat and the calls for Pashinyan to resign, election turnout appeared to be relatively unenthusiastic. The central elections commission said that 38% of eligible voters had cast ballots three hours before the polling stations closed.
After calling the election, Pashinyan stepped down from the premiership as required by law to allow the election to take place but remains the country’s leader as acting prime minister. The new parliament could restore him to the full post or choose a new prime minister.
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but had been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by the government in Yerevan since a separatist war ended in 1994, leaving the region and substantial surrounding territory in Armenian hands.
Hostilities flared in late September 2020, and the Azerbaijani military pushed deep into Nagorno-Karabakh and nearby areas in six weeks of fighting involving heavy artillery and drones that killed more than 6,000 people.
Pashinyan, who came to power after leading large street protests in 2018 that ousted his predecessor, has defended the deal as a painful but necessary move that prevented Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Sunday’s ballot involves 21 political parties and four electoral blocs, but two political forces are seen as the main contenders: the ruling Civic Contract party led by Pashinyan and the Armenia alliance, led by former President Robert Kocharyan, who also once led Nagorno-Karabakh’s unrecognized separatist government.
Recent media reports cite polls showing Pashinyan’s party and Kocharyan’s bloc in a close race, and it’s unclear if either will be able to win 54% of parliament seats necessary to form a government. The seats in parliament are chosen by national party list.
After casting his ballot on Sunday, Kocharyan urged authorities to investigate the appearance of leaflets denouncing him, an apparent violation of the law banning campaigning on election day.