Armenia’s leadership and main opposition forces are gearing up for a fresh showdown in the first local elections in Yerevan since the early 1990s to be held on May 31. The surprise decision by the top opposition leader, Levon Ter-Petrosian, to run for Yerevan mayor has added a new twist to the race and represents the most serious challenge to President Serzh Sarkisian during his almost one-year rule.
Mayors of the Armenian capital have been appointed by the presidents of the republic since the country adopted its post-Soviet constitution in 1995. Yerevan residents have only been able to elect the chief executives of the city’s administrative districts and their "councils of elders." The city as a whole has had no such legislative body over the past 14 years. An amendment to the Armenian constitution enacted in late 2005 abolished the effective presidential control of the municipal government, leaving it to the authorities to decide whether the Yerevan mayor should be directly elected or reinstated by the municipal council. The authorities chose the latter option. It was not until December 2008 that the government-controlled National Assembly passed a law paving the way for the elections of the council. Under that law, all of its 65 seats will be up for grabs on the party list basis. A party or bloc winning over 40 percent of the vote would have a 10 percent "bonus" added to its electoral tally and see its top candidate automatically become mayor.
The controversial provision is clearly aimed at making it easier for Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) to re-install the incumbent Mayor Gagik Beglarian, who will be leading its list of candidates in the upcoming polls. A wealthy businessman with a questionable reputation, Beglarian was named by Sarkisian to run the Yerevan municipality on March 4. He had previously governed the city’s central Kentron district for more than six years (www.noyan-tapan.am, March 5).
With Beglarian’s appointment, the HHK indicated its intention to heavily rely on its extensive government links to win a majority in the new council. Even if the ruling party falls short of the 40 percent voting threshold, it should be able to enlist the support of three other parties represented within the Armenian government. However, the popularity of these parties is unknown. Two of them, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, also known as the Dashnak Party) and the Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party, had campaigned for the February 2008 presidential election on opposition platforms that secured a considerable number of votes. Their subsequent decision to recognize Sarkisian’s victory in the disputed ballot, join his coalition cabinet and unequivocally endorse the authorities’ deadly post-election crackdown on the opposition is certain to have alienated many voters. The ARF and Orinats Yerkir as well as the fourth coalition party, Prosperous Armenia, will now have trouble distancing themselves from the government and using opposition-style rhetoric.
The government camp appears to have been caught off guard by Ter-Petrosian’s March 15 decision to enter the fray at the head of the electoral list of his Armenian National Congress (HAK), an alliance of 18 mostly small opposition groups. Explaining the move, HAK representatives said that the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition considers the municipal poll as a "second round" of the 2008 presidential election and would use its control over the Yerevan municipality to topple the Sarkisian administration. The HAK’s electoral chances were hardly bolstered by its failure to team up with Armenia’s second most important opposition force, the Heritage Party. The two opposition camps disagreed over their joint candidate for the post of Yerevan mayor. The HAK insisted on Ter-Petrosian’s candidacy, whereas Heritage wanted one of its own leaders, notably the U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, to top the list of the would-be opposition bloc’s candidates (www.armtown.com, March 2).
"There is a large segment of the electorate that finds it hard to vote for Levon Ter-Petrosian," Hovsep Khurshudian, a Heritage party spokesman, told a news conference, summing up his party’s arguments. (RFE/RL Armenia Report, March 18.) Such statements provoked fierce criticism from Armenian newspapers sympathetic to Ter-Petrosian. Some of them went as far as to accuse Hovannisian of cutting a secret deal with the authorities. This might explain why Heritage announced in a March 23 statement that it will not participate in the elections. As the independent daily Aravot pointed out in a March 24 editorial, "If that party participated in the elections on its own, it would not avoid a barrage of verbal abuse from supporters of the Armenian National Congress for a single minute" (Aravot, March 24).
Ter-Petrosian’s aides welcomed Heritage’s decision to drop out of the mayoral race, saying that it will facilitate the HAK’s victory in the polls. But some local observers disagree pointing to a sizable part of the electorate that dislikes both the authorities and Ter-Petrosian. The latter served as Armenia’s first president from 1991-1998 and despite his recent popularity (especially with young and middle-class urban voters) he is still blamed by many people for severe socioeconomic hardship that characterized the early years of the country’s independence. The Heritage boycott makes these people more likely to stay at home on election day.
Low voter turnout would in turn benefit the authorities and the HHK in particular, which has long capitalized on public apathy in local elections to establish a tight grip on self-government bodies across Armenia. This is especially true for Yerevan where opposition candidates have traditionally performed well and where vote rigging is much more difficult to perpetrate than in rural areas. That the Sarkisian administration will do practically everything to ensure a successful election seems beyond doubt. An opposition victory in Yerevan, home to at least one third of the country’s population, would be the beginning of its end. The only question is whether Ter-Petrosian, who almost brought down the ruling regime with massive street protests following the 2008 election, will be able to do it this time around.