Authorities in Armenia have allowed Nikol Pashinian, a prominent opposition leader and newspaper editor, to stand in an upcoming parliamentary by-election while being under arrest and on trial on charges stemming from last year’s post-election violence in Yerevan.
The electoral commission of a single-mandate constituency in central Yerevan made the decision on Saturday two weeks after an Armenian court ordered the police to issue Pashinian with a document necessary for putting him on the ballot.
Under Armenian law, only those citizens who have permanently resided in the country for at least five years preceding an election can run for the National Assembly. Their residency has to be certified, in writing, by the police Department of Passports and Visas (OVIR). The OVIR branch in Pashinian’s native town of Ijevan refused to provide such a document in early November, saying that the outspoken editor of the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily was not in Armenia from February 2008 through July 2009.
Pashinian, 34, appealed against the decision in the Administrative Court, challenging the police to prove that he was not in the country. The court accepted his and his lawyers’ assertions that the police failed to prove his more than yearlong absence from the country.
Armenia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) said that in registering Pashinian the district commission abided by “the requirements of the Electoral Code.” “The commission had no grounds to refuse Nikol Pashinian’s registration,” Tatev Ohanian, the CEC spokeswoman, told RFE/RL. “Pashinian submitted all documents necessary for registration.”
David Matevosian, an opposition figure who will manage Pashinian’s election campaign, likewise stressed that the decision should not be seen as a favor to the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK). “All this means is that the authorities … did not break the law and performed their duties,” he told RFE/RL.
Matevosian also claimed that the authorities now need the CEC’s permission to continue to keep Pashinian in detention. He cited an article of the Electoral Code which stipulates that a parliamentary election contender can not be arrested without the CEC’s consent.
But CEC Chairman Garegin Azarian insisted that the clause applies only to cases where a candidate is arrested after being formally registered. “The Central Election Commission has nothing to do in this case,” Azarian told RFE/RL.
The parliament seat in question became vacant in October when its previous longtime holder, opposition-linked businessman Khachatur Sukiasian, resigned from the National Assembly in protest against its pro-government majority’s March 2008 decision to lift his and his opposition colleagues’ immunity from prosecution. Sukiasian and Pashinian were among prominent loyalists of HAK leader Levon Ter-Petrosian that went into hiding following the March 1, 2008 deadly clashes in Yerevan between opposition protesters and security forces.
Both men were charged with organizing the “mass disturbances” and remained on the run until this summer. But unlike the “Haykakan Zhamanak” editor, Sukiasian spent only a few days in custody after his surrender and was allowed to undergo medical treatment abroad.
Surprisingly, Armenia’s main pro-government parties have refrained from fielding candidates in the Yerevan constituency, giving Pashinian what many local observers believe is a strong chance of winning the January 10 ballot. He will face three other candidates there.
One of them, Hmayak Hovannisian, is a well-known politician who supported Ter-Petrosian in the February 2008 presidential election and claims to remain in opposition to President Serzh Sarkisian. Hovannisian has repeatedly said that he is ready, in principle, to withdraw from the race in Pashinian’s.
Another candidate, David Hakobian, leads the small Marxist Party and is formally aligned with the Ter-Petrosian-led alliance despite regularly criticizing the HAK leader’s entourage. The fourth contender, Ara Simonian, represents the National Unity Party, a once influential opposition group that now supports Sarkisian.
Campaigning for the by-election formally began on Monday, with Matevosian and two other opposition activists visiting Pashinian in his prison cell in the morning. Armenian law allows the oppositionists to meet his election proxies for two hours every day.
Matevosian said Pashinian will conduct his campaign through proxies and 60 young HAK activists. “I think that Nikol has such a strong will that his temporary imprisonment will not inhibit him,” he said.