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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Armenia crisis deepens as opposition leader calls for strike after PM bid nixed

Nikol Pashinian called for his supporters to block key transport links in the country

A supporters of the opposition lawmaker Nikol Pashinian rides a tricycle as he looks at people blocking a road in Yerevan on Wednesday, May 2, 2018. Pashinyan has urged his supporters to block roads, railway stations and airports on Wednesday after the governing Republican Party voted against his election as prime minister. Thanassis Stavrakis / AP
A supporters of the opposition lawmaker Nikol Pashinian rides a tricycle as he looks at people blocking a road in Yerevan on Wednesday, May 2, 2018. Pashinyan has urged his supporters to block roads, railway stations and airports on Wednesday after the governing Republican Party voted against his election as prime minister. Thanassis Stavrakis / AP

Armenia's political crisis deepened Wednesday as opposition leader Nikol Pashinian called for protesters to block key transport links after lawmakers rejected his bid to become prime minister.

Mr Pashinian's supporters have pledged to ramp up pressure on authorities to force the ruling Republican Party, which withheld support for the protest leader despite tens of thousands massing in the streets, to quit power.

"From 8.15am tomorrow all roads should be blocked. I announce a general strike", Mr Pashinian told supporters gathered in the capital Yerevan's Republic Square late Tuesday.

"A revolution of love and tolerance is continuing," he said, also urging people to block an airport and turn out for a huge rally Wednesday evening as the crowds chanted "Nikol! Nikol!".

Parliament had voted 45 in favour to 55 against Mr Pashinian, with the Republican Party headed by ousted prime minister Serzh Sarkisian rejecting his candidacy after hours of deliberation during a day-long special session.

"The political force which declared a war against its own people has destroyed itself," Mr Pashinyan said in parliament after the vote.

"No one will be able to take victory away from the people."

Mr Pashinyan previously warned lawmakers' unwillingness to back him could lead to a "political tsunami".

Armenia has been in the grip of a severe political crisis in recent weeks, with observers and the international community expressing concern that the turmoil could destabilise the small south Caucasus country.

Mr Pashinian, who spearheaded the mass protests that led to the resignation of veteran leader Mr Sarkisian last month, has insisted that only he can rid the poor ex-Soviet nation of corruption and poverty and conduct free and fair elections.

He had been thought to be just a handful of votes short of a majority in parliament.

Ahead of the vote, lawmakers from the Republican Party grilled Mr Pashinian on a number of technical issues in an apparent effort to make him appear incompetent.

"The entire country is united in its demand that the Republicans' rule must end", said student Laura Shahverdyan, 22.

Pensioner Anait Tolmasyan, 63, said: "We all only have one demand: the Republicans must go. Nikol is the true leader of the Armenian people".

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Eduard Sharmazanov, Vice Speaker of parliament and the Republicans' spokesman, excoriated the former newspaper editor, 42, implying he was unpredictable.

"Mr Pashinian, I don't see you at the post of prime minister, I don't see you at the post of commander-in-chief."

A lawmaker from the Elk coalition that nominated Mr Pashinian, Edmon Marukyan, accused the Republicans of leading the country into a "dead end".

A source familiar with negotiations said earlier this week that the Republican Party leadership was clinging to power and opposed Mr Pashinyan's election.

The source said Mr Pashinian and the Republicans had struck a backdoor deal several days ago, but it appears that the ruling party backed out at the last minute.

Mr Pashinian had secured the backing of two other key parties, including Prosperous Armenia.

But ahead of the ballot he was at least seven votes short of the 53 he needed from the 105-seat legislature, where the Republican Party has a majority.

Armenia is dependent on Russia economically and militarily and Mr Pashinian had said his premiership would not threaten traditionally tight ties with Moscow.

Armenia has for decades been locked in a bitter dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh, a breakaway statelet with an Armenian ethnic majority that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has closely watched the political crisis, with analysts warning Armenia's arch-foe could use the turmoil to its advantage.

One Azerbaijani lawmaker, Gudrat Gasanguliyev, called on Tuesday for a special session of parliament, citing the prospect of "civil war" in Armenia.

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