Yerevan City Council elections this month will be another test of democracy in Armenia
Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian is among the candidates for mayor
Published: Tuesday May 19, 2009
Yerevan - Karen Shavarshian, 63, a resident of the Arabkir district of Yerevan, says he will vote in Yerevan's municipal elections on May 31 and will cast his ballot for the People's Party and its leader Tigran Karapetian. "In him I see uncompromising dedication to the people," said Mr. Shavarshian, who expressed hope that this time the elections will be fair. "It's enough, already. One day we must say, Enough fraud!" he said.
Armenuhi Ghazarian, 40, will also vote. As in February 2008, in the presidential elections, she will cast her ballot for the first president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrossian – who is now running for mayor. In contrast to Mr. Shavarshian, Mrs. Ghazarian has no faith that the elections will be fair. "But only Ter-Petrossian can get these people out of power," she said, referring to President Serge Sargsian and his Republican Party of Armenia. Mrs. Ghazarian was among hundreds of people gathered outside the Holy Mother of God Church in the Nork-Marash district to listen to Mr. Ter-Petrossian speak.
The authorities insist that the election will be carried out in full compliance with the law, and the residents of Yerevan will be able to elect their mayor and City Council for the first time since independence. Appointing the mayor of Yerevan has been a presidential prerogative until now. The new, 65-member City Council will be elected by citywide party lists. The mayor will be elected from among council members. The first person on each party's list is the party's candidate for mayor.
The candidate of the ruling Republican Party is Gagik Beglarian. The president appointed him mayor of Yerevan two months ago, upon his selection as his party's candidate. The second name on the Republican Party list is that of Taron Margarian, head of Yerevan's Avan district and son of the late Prime Minister Andranik Margarian.
Hakob Badalian is a commentator for the online newspaper Lragir.am. Asked why the former mayor resigned and Mr. Beglarian was appointed mayor just two months before the election, he said, "So that the whole of the administrative resources and means of government could be dedicated to Gagik Beglarian's campaign." Mr. Badalian, who is following the election closely, added, "The mentality of our authorities does not change."
The media liaison for the Republican Party, Edward Sharmazanov, says that his party has no intention to engage in electoral fraud. "Republicans are always ready to show in practice their support for civilized, legitimate elections. Republicans have showed through action that they embody democratic values," Mr. Sharmazanov said in a recent interview.
A national contest
The municipal elections have become something more than a local contest, for various reasons. The first is the participation of Mr. Ter-Petrossian, who was the runner-up in the February 2008 presidential elections. He heads the list for the opposition Armenian National Congress bloc. The second name on the bloc's list is that of the runner-up in the 2003 presidential election, Stepan Demirchian, the son of Soviet-era leader Karen Demirchian. The elder Mr. Demirchian was among those assassinated in the National Assembly on October 27, 1999.
One opinion pollster suggests that the Republican Party enjoys the support of some 55 percent of voters. The opposition treats this poll result with derision, while Prosperous Armenia Party leader Gagik Tsarukian has publicly offered to pay the pollster, Aharon Adibekian, a large sum if he can substantiate his findings. The party headed by Mr. Tsarukian, widely believed to be Armenia's wealthiest entrepreneur, is part of the governing three-party coalition and enjoys the support of former President Robert Kocharian.
Mr. Adibekian had claimed that the Prosperous Armenia Party, whose City Council list is headed by Minister of Health Harutiun Kushkian, will receive 21 percent of the vote, while the Armenian National Congress will receive 14 percent. The other parties will have a hard time crossing the 7 percent threshold for winning any seats on the council, he predicted.
The Country of Laws Party, which is the third member of the governing coalition, alongside the Republican and Prosperous Armenia parties, is running a list headed by Member of Parliament Heghine Bisharian.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which left the governing coalition and joined the opposition in late April, is running a list headed by the economist Artsvik Minasian, a member of parliament. Among the top five names on the ARF list are two Armenians from the diaspora, the Iranian-Armenian architect Albert Achemian and the Canadian-Armenian journalist Maria Titizian. It also includes the legendary bard Ruben Hakhverdian.
The seventh party running in the election is the Workers' Socialist Party of Armenia, whose list is headed by Movses Shahverdian.
The parties are pursuing different goals in this election, as their campaign speeches show. The Republicans, beyond keeping the mayor's office, would like to see the decisive defeat of Mr. Ter-Petrossian, which would help dispel questions of legitimacy that have lingered since the presidential elections.
The campaign focus of the Republicans and Mr. Beglarian is very local. They speak of trash collection and planting trees. The coalition members and the ARF have focused on ecological issues. They assure city residents that the construction of "elite" housing and other buildings at the expense of green zones – the bulk of which has happened under their watch – will come to an end.
For Mr. Ter-Petrossian's bloc, the election is an opportunity to move toward regime change in Armenia. If they manage to win, Armenia will effectively have a dual government, says political and economic commentator Andranik Tevanian. "If the Armenian National Congress manages to take the mayor's post, a new axis of power will form in Armenia, which will create a domestic political crisis, which will lead to the need for early parliamentary elections," he said.
The Armenian National Congress says it will win at least 40 percent of the vote. Mr. Ter-Petrossian's supporters cite past election results in Yerevan. Since 1996 opposition parties have won about 40 percent of the Yerevan vote in national elections. That fact alone is not sufficient, however, to ensure an opposition victory, since pro-government parties too have won at least 40 percent of the Yerevan vote in those same national elections.
In a mass meeting on May 15, Mr. Ter-Petrossian left no doubt that his focus is national rather than municipal. He said the president has two "ways out of the dead end situation": He could "consolidate the nation, for which it is necessary to free all political prisoners immediately, start a dialogue with the Armenian National Congress and other opposition forces, and ensure the absolute legality of the Yerevan City Council elections." Alternatively, he could "resign with dignity and leave politics – as the nightmare of the past year has showed, politics for Serge Sargsian is not responsibility but a profitable pursuit."
The May 31 election will be another test of democracy for Armenia, which has been criticized repeatedly by credible international organizations and individual countries since the February 2008 presidential election and the tragic events that followed it.
A few unpleasant incidents have already cast their shadow over these elections. On May 10, three women Armenian National Congress activists were attacked while handing out flyers in Avan for a campaign event. They were taken to hospital. One of the women had been struck in the head with a rock. The others had been struck by fists.
Activists for the Republican and Prosperous Armenia parties have had two violent clashes with each other so far. One incident was in the Kanaker-Zeitun district. The other was in the Ajapniak district, where gunshots were also heard.
Two journalists have also been attacked, including the pro-Republican Shant Television's Nver Mnatsakanian.