12 of 14 presidential candidates participated in March 29 debate. Image grab.

On March 31, Nagorno Karabakh will hold a historic general election. Fourteen candidates are running for the president and twelve parties and blocs are vying for thirty-three National Assembly seats, more competition than in any previous election. The outcome remains hard to predict.

Ahead of the vote, main candidates disagreed whether it should proceed as scheduled amid a growing outbreak of corona virus in Armenia and around the world. Officials in Stepanakert and Yerevan pointed to the absence of confirmed cases in Artsakh as reason why election could take place as planned. Critics noted that with Armenia’s confirmed cases up from just a handful to nearly five hundred in two weeks, their spread to Artsakh was inevitable and the holding of elections would only facilitate that spread.

One of the candidates, Arayik Harutyunyan argued that the election should go ahead since it was unclear when the pandemic might be over and that the political transition should conclude as soon as possible so that Artsakh’s new leader is able to address the many challenges arising from the corona virus crisis. Harutyunyan is widely believed to have the best chances to finish at the top of the March 31 vote and go into the likely second round of voting that – unless re-scheduled – would take place in mid-April.

Fellow candidate Masis Mayilian said days before the vote that “if there is a decision to postpone the election, he would take it with understanding.” But Mayilian, who has served as foreign minister in the current government, did not himself demand a postponement.

Vitaly Balasanyan, another leading candidate, attacked both the outgoing president Bako Sahakyan and the parliamentary majority – led by by Harutyunyan – for their failure to re-schedule the election and “failing to prioritize public safety over their political interests.” 

Among other candidates Hayk Khanumyan, Ruslan Israelyan and Kristin Balayan have also expressed support for the vote’s postponement. 

Officials in Artsakh announced precautions to mitigate against possible spread of the virus during the election. Armenia’s leader Nikol Pashinyan said on March 18 that he “saw no reason” to postpone the election; he made no further comments since. Pashinyan is believed to favor Harutyunyan’s election, and also has cordial relations with Mayilian. 

Ex-presidents of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan issued separate public statements, in which both said that it was up to the NKR leadership to decide on whether to proceed with the election considering the risks. While they did not name him directly both ex-presidents appeared to favor Balasanyan over Harutyunyan.

The Central Election Commission reported that there were 103,622 eligible voters, with no minimum required turnout threshold.