Armenia's Parliament Rejects Protest Leader as New Premier

"They spat on us, but we're not going to tolerate this," one protester said

Armenia's parliament rejected making the opposition lawmaker who led weeks of anti-government rallies the country's new prime minister Tuesday, prompting him to call for a nationwide strike in protest.

After a nine-hour session, the National Assembly of Armenia voted 55-45 against appointing Nikol Pashinian. He was the only candidate nominated to replace long-time leader Serzh Sargsyan, who resigned as prime minister because of the protests.

Between 30,000 and 40,000 opposition supporters spent the day peacefully rallying outside the parliament building to support Pashinian. The vote's outcome upset many of them.

"They spat on us, but we're not going to tolerate this," bakery owner Samvel Rustamyan, 46, said while jeering and punching his fists in the air. "This government just won't resign on its own will. It's tens of thousands of us, and we need them to go."

As Pashinian made his way through the crowd after the vote, his backers clapped and chanted his name until he reached the stage in Republic Square with his wife holding onto his arm.

Confetti flew over the square as if in celebration as Pashinian urged his supporters to strike and to block all major roads and access to the Yerevan airport to protest the vote's outcome, which they did on Wednedsay. The crowd's mood was jubilant despite the setback, as a light show lit up the rally and people shined flashlights from their cellphones.

"The peaceful revolution goes on. We're not going to let them steal our victory," a hoarse Pashinian said. "We are starting large-scale actions of civil disobedience tomorrow."

The Armenian Constitution dictates that parliament will convene next week for another vote.

Hours earlier, Pashinian warned his colleagues in parliament that this Caucasus Mountains country would be roiled by "a political tsunami" if the majority party didn't support him.

"Your attempts to interpret the tolerance of the popular movement as weakness could cause unexpected and undesirable consequences," Pashinian said, addressing members of the ruling Republican Party. "Get sober until it's too late, because your behavior could cause a political tsunami."

However, he pledged that the protest would remain non-violent, rejecting suggestions by members of the ruling party that he was encouraging divisions in the country.

It's "people on one side and 20-25 Republican party members on the other," he said.

But some warned that Tuesday's vote might spark violent protests despite Pashinian's pledges.

"Authorities' actions are pushing the opposition to radicalize, and this movement might spill into violence," Vigen Akopyan, a political analyst in Yerevan, said. "Pashinian won't be able to keep the protest peaceful for long. People are very angry."

Sargsyan led Armenia as president for 10 years until term limits forced him to step down and he was made prime minister in mid-April. The opposition saw the move as aimed at keeping Sargsyan in power indefinitely.

After nearly two weeks of street protests led by Pashinian, Sargsyan resigned.

While Pashinian was the only candidate nominated to be the next prime minister before Tuesday, the National Assembly is controlled by Sargsyan's Republicans. Not a single Republican lawmaker appeared to have voted for him.

Before the vote, lawmakers grilled Pashinian during a question-and-answer session. Later, dozens of them took the floor to speak about Pashinian's candidacy.

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 members of parliament joined Pashinian in warning that a vote against him would be a vote against the tens of thousands of people who joined the anti-government rallies in recent weeks.

"The only thing that people on this square will accept is Pashinian's win, changes in the country and the ouster of the old clan," said engineer David Babayan, 47, who came to Republic Square with his wife and 10-year-old son.

The vote against Pashinian might be a deliberate tactic of the Republican party to get the opposition to meet some of its demands half-way. The party did not put forward its own candidate or say beforehand how its lawmakers would vote.

"Authorities have decided to bide for time, trying to get the opposition to offer concessions," Alexander Iskanderian, director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, said. "Authorities will obviously want to secure guarantees of immunity from prosecution and seats in a new government."

Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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