Over the past 15 years Armenians have grown accustomed to a great variety of political groups vying for power in their country. They must therefore be amazed by the glaring lack of choice in unfolding local elections across Armenia, races that are largely contested by candidates representing rival government factions or competing business clans.
The Armenian opposition is again showing little interest in local governments, adding to popular indifference to the polls. Opposition leaders say that they want to concentrate their efforts on removing President Robert Kocharian and that free elections are impossible without regime change in Yerevan.
Elections in more than two-thirds of some 930 Armenian towns, villages, as well as Yerevan districts are scheduled for this October. Most other hamaynkner, or local communities, will elect their chief executives and “councils of aldermen” in the course of this year. Some of them have already done so in recent weeks.
Virtually none of those polls featured a major opposition candidate. They were mostly two-horse races pitting candidates affiliated with or endorsed by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) against contenders backed by other pro-government forces or wealthy individuals. One election, held in the northern town of Alaverdi on May 8, was contested by two candidates representing different HHK factions. The defeated candidate accused the winner, Alaverdi’s incumbent mayor, of massive vote rigging.
Nonetheless, the Armenian authorities did manage to display unity in some cases. Nobody, for example, dared challenge Markarian’s 27-year-old son Taron, who ran unopposed in Yerevan’s northern Avan district. He was “elected” Avan prefect with 97% of the vote on May 22, becoming the youngest head of a local government body in the country. In fact, Taron Markarian told the 168 Zham weekly, he would have an even higher government position were his father not prime minister.
The election in Yerevan’s nearby Nork-Marash district, scheduled for June 5, will also feature one candidate: its incumbent prefect. A local businessman pulled out of the race at the last minute after failing (for unknown reasons) to win the endorsement of the People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), one of the most popular opposition groups.
“We are not participating in those elections because we have no candidates,” HZhK leader Stepan Demirchian said on May 11 without elaborating. He said his party would instead field candidates for the October polls.
Another prominent opposition leader, Aram Sarkisian, admitted that his Republic party would not do even that, as party leaders believe Armenian local elections cannot be democratic as long as Kocharian is in power.
Haykakan Zhamanak, a daily staunchly opposed to Kocharian, deplored this line of reasoning in a May 19 editorial. The paper wrote that by letting the ruling regime maintain its grip on local communities the opposition only lessens its chances of toppling the central government. “Opposition parties now have trouble meeting people in the regions, and one of the reasons for this is that government stooges who become community prefects or village chiefs are duly following government instructions,” it argued.
Nonetheless, money and control of electoral commissions do appear to be the main factor deciding the outcome of those ballots. Most Yerevan district chiefs and town mayors are wealthy, government-linked persons who have extensive business interests in their respective communities. For them, vote buying is the easiest way to get apathetic and impoverished voters to the polling stations. The central government usually turns a blind eye to their questionable activities because the local bosses play an important role in manipulating presidential and parliamentary elections.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation, another party represented in Kocharian’s cabinet, has repeatedly expressed concern about the growing influence of what it calls “apolitical elements.” One of its leaders, Armen Rustamian, warned last February that failure to rein them in and ensure the freedom and fairness of the October elections could result in bloodshed.
Armenians may have received a taste of things to come on May 29, when a mayoral election in Hrazdan, a town 50 kilometers north of Yerevan, was marred by violence and fraud allegations. According to official results, its incumbent mayor, Aram Danielian, narrowly defeated his main challenger, Artur Shaboyan, who is not affiliated with any party. Shaboyan refused to concede defeat.
As voting there drew to a close, scores of masked police officers reportedly attacked and indiscriminately beat up Shaboyan’s proxies and supporters outside three polling stations. Eyewitnesses said the special police units used electric-shock equipment. More than a thousand people rallied in Hrazdan the next day to demand a recount of ballots.
“A new fact has emerged,” another newspaper, Aravot, reported from the scene. “You don’t have to be an oppositionist in order to be beaten and electrocuted. All you need is to protest against vote falsifications.”
(Aravot, May 31; Haykakan Zhamanak, May 24, May 19; 168 Zham, May 19; RFE/RL Armenia Report, May 11)