Ara Harutiunian, a businessman and former prime minister, won the first round of a presidential election in Nagorno-Karabakh and will face another candidate, Masis Mayilian, in a runoff two weeks later, according to preliminary vote results released on Wednesday.
The official results also show Harutiunian’s party winning the largest number of seats in Karabakh’s next parliament also elected on Tuesday.
The Central Election Commission (CEC) said more than 73 percent of Karabakh’s 104,300 eligible cast ballots in the polls strongly condemned by Azerbaijan.
The turnout was high despite concerns about the spread of coronavirus in the Armenian-populated territory that broke away from Azerbaijani rule in 1991. The authorities in Stepanakert have registered no coronavirus cases so far.
According to the CEC, Harutiunian garnered 49.3 percent of the vote, narrowly missing the threshold for winning the presidential ballot outright. Mayilian came in second with 26.4 percent of the vote, followed by retired General Vitaly Balasanian, who got 14.7 percent. The 11 other presidential candidates fared far more poorly.
Also, Harutiunian’s Free Fatherland party won over 40 percent of the vote and will therefore have the largest group in the new local legislature.
The United Homeland party of Samvel Babayan, another retired general, finished second with 23.6 percent of the vote. Babayan had led Karabakh’s Armenian-backed army during and after the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan.
Also winning parliament seats were three other Karabakh parties: Balasanian’s Justice (7.9 percent), the Karabakh branch of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (6.4 percent) and the Democratic Party (5.8 percent). The latter is led by Ashot Ghulian, the outgoing parliament speaker.
None of the presidential candidates was openly backed during the election campaign by Bako Sahakian, the outgoing Karabakh president, or Armenia’s political leadership. Both frontrunners as well as Balasanian used to hold major positions in Sahakian’s administration.
Balasanian has been a bitter critic of the current Armenian government and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in particular ever since he resigned as Karabakh’s top security official last year. Pashinian’s political allies have accused the general of maintaining close ties with Armenia’s former leadership overthrown in the 2018 “Velvet Revolution.”
Harutiunian has a much more cordial relationship with the Pashinian government. The 46-year-old served as Karabakh’s prime minister from 2007-2017. He has extensive business interests in the territory.
For his part, Mayilian was appointed as foreign minister in 2017. He went on leave late last year to concentrate on the elections.
Azerbaijan has always condemned elections held in Karabakh as illegitimate. The Foreign Ministry in Baku said on Tuesday that the latest polls also run counter to Azerbaijani and international law and that Karabakh is governed by an “illegal regime installed by Armenia.”
U.S., Russian and French diplomats co-heading the OSCE Minsk Group said that Karabakh is not recognized as an independent state by the international community and “the so-called general elections” cannot predetermine the outcome of Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks mediated by them.
By contrast, Armenia defended the holding of the elections. It cited a 1992 OSCE document saying that “elected representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh” should also participate in the peace process.