YREVAN, Armenia (AP) – The Armenian leader faces a tall order at the polls after a humiliating defeat for Armenian forces in last year’s fighting with Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has called an early election for Sunday, seeking to allay public anger over the peace deal he signed in November, which sparked months of protests demanding his resignation.

The deal brokered by Moscow ended six weeks of fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, but allowed Azerbaijan to regain control of large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas held by Armenian forces for longer. of a quarter of a century.

The deal was celebrated as a major triumph in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, but thousands of Armenians took to the streets in Yerevan and denounced it as a betrayal of their national interests.

“This is largely a referendum or an election defined by security – or more accurately, insecurity – given the unexpected and unprecedented loss of war for Nagorno-Karabakh”, Richard Giragosian , director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center, told The Associated Press. “The attack on Azerbaijan, with Turkish military support, has redefined the political landscape in Armenia. “

Nagorno-Karabakh is located in Azerbaijan but was under the control of Armenian ethnic forces backed by the Yerevan government since the end of a separatist war between the two Caucasian mountain neighbors in 1994, leaving the region and significant territory surrounding in the hands of the Armenians.

Hostilities broke out in late September 2020, and the Azerbaijani army sank deep into Nagorno-Karabakh and neighboring areas in six weeks of fighting involving heavy artillery and drones that killed more than 6,000 people.

Pashinyan, who came to power after leading large street protests in 2018 that ousted his predecessor, defended the deal as a painful but necessary step that prevented Azerbaijan from invading the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region. .

He resigned as prime minister as required by law to organize early voting, but remained in office as interim prime minister.

In Sunday’s elections, more than 2,000 polling stations will open across Armenia, with nearly 2.6 million people eligible to vote. The poll includes 21 political parties and four electoral blocs, but two political forces are considered the main candidates: the ruling Civic Contract party led by Pashinyan and the Armenian Alliance, led by former president Robert Kocharyan.

Both used harsh rhetoric during their campaign. Kocharyan suggested a duel against Pashinyan “with any kind of weapon” instead of debates, while Pashinyan brandished a hammer at his rallies, promising “political vendettas” and staff purges, calling officials supporting the opposition of “rusty nails”.

Recent media reports cite polls showing Pashinyan’s party and Kocharyan bloc neck and neck, and it is not clear whether either will be able to win 54% of the parliamentary seats needed to form. a government.

Pashinyan, a 46-year-old former journalist, apparently continues to enjoy broad support despite the humiliating defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh and the protests demanding his resignation. When opposition protests increased in Yerevan, he drew thousands to the streets to rally his support.

At his last campaign rally on Thursday, Pashinyan told his supporters in Yerevan that he had visited “every corner” of Armenia and spoken to “tens of thousands of people”.

“After eight months of hell, exhausted and followed by threats, insults and insults, we entered this electoral race. And the Armenian people welcomed us, as we welcome relatives back from captivity, ”Pashinyan told a crowd of around 20,000 people.

Kocharyan, originally from Nagorno-Karabakh and president between 1998 and 2008, ran on the promise of strengthening the country’s shaken security, encouraging economic growth and reconciling a society divided by war and political tensions.

“We have to overcome the losers complex,” Kocharyan said at a campaign rally. “We reject the crisis, reject hatred, reject life on our knees!

Alexander Iskandaryan, founding director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, believes those who would vote for Kocharyan don’t support him as much as they don’t like Pashinyan. “These are not people who like Kocharyan. Maybe there are, but not many. The majority of people who would vote for Kocharyan are people who hate Pashinyan, ”Iskandaryan told the AP.

Voters, meanwhile, remain polarized.

Some continue to support Pashinyan and think it is time to put the bitter defeat behind them.

“Our nation’s back is broken, but we are strong. We have already seen three wars. But life goes on and we will always honor those who died, ”said Nelli Karapetyan, a Pashinyan supporter from Sisian City.

Others say Kocharian must win for Armenia to succeed. “We want Armenia to be strong,… and all prisoners of war to come back. I want Kocharian to be elected and Armenia to prosper, “Mariam Gevorgyan told the PA at a rally on Friday.

“We have come (to the rally) to liberate our homeland from the defeatist (Pashinyan),” added Narek Markosyan, who also attended the rally. “He can’t stay, period. Just period. He cannot stay in our homeland.

And some cannot overcome the war with Azerbaijan.

Anahit Aleqyan, a 65-year-old woman from the village of Shurnkh in southern Armenia, says she “will vote for anyone who silences (Azerbaijani President Ilham) Aliyev”.

Her village was cut in two by a newly defined border with Azerbaijan, and she lost her home in the peace agreement.

“Every day I come here to pick thyme, look (my house) and cry,” she lamented.

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Associated Press writer Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed.

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