Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan has tightened his grip on power after municipal elections in Yerevan were controversially won by his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). The country’s main opposition groups have rejected the official results of the May 31 vote as fraudulent. The largest of them, led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, has pledged to intensify its efforts to topple the Sarksyan administration. However, it is unlikely to make the type of push for power that followed the disputed presidential election of February 2008.
The polls were conducted in accordance with a 2005 constitutional amendment, which enabled the residents of the Armenian capital to choose their mayor through a municipal assembly elected by universal suffrage. Yerevan mayors were previously presidentially appointed. The 65 seats in the new Council of Elders were contested on the party list basis, with six political parties and one alliance in the running. Under Armenian law, a party or bloc securing more than 40 percent of the vote will see the person leading its electoral list automatically become mayor.
According to the government-controlled Central Election Commission (CEC), the ruling HHK garnered 47.4 percent of the vote, and thus reinstalled its main candidate -the incumbent Mayor Gagik Beglarian. The Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the HHK’s most important partner within the governing coalition, finished in distant second place with 22.7 percent, followed by Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) alliance (17.4 percent) (Armenian Public Television, June 1). None of the other candidates cleared the required 7 percent threshold for being represented in the city council. For two of them, the Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, also known as the Dashnak Party) that was a particularly bitter experience. Orinats Yerkir holds four ministerial portfolios in the central government, while the ARF quit the ruling coalition in late April in protest over Sarksyan’s conciliatory policy on Turkey. Both parties are now facing an uncertain future.
Sarksyan was quick to welcome the elections as a "really serious step forward" in Armenia’s democratization and elimination of its post-Soviet culture of electoral fraud (Statement by the Armenian president, June 1). This claim was echoed by a 12-member election observation mission deployed by the Council of Europe. In a statement issued on June 1, the mission concluded that the Armenian authorities’ handling of the polls was largely "in compliance with European standards." The monitors said "serious deficiencies" observed in some polling stations did not call into question the overall legitimacy of the official vote.
In what is becoming a pattern within the former Soviet republics, the findings of the European observers sharply contrasted with widespread vote rigging and other cases of fraud reported by opposition representatives, the Armenian media and local election monitors. The country’s largest vote-monitoring organization "It’s Your Choice," reported a plethora of irregularities, which had marred previous Armenian elections. In its preliminary report, the group said "there are insufficient grounds to believe that these elections passed the threshold of being democratic, fair and transparent" (Aravot, June 3).
Not surprisingly, the main opposition HAK demanded a re-run of what Ter-Petrosian called "the ugliest election in Armenia’s history." The 18-party alliance decided against taking up its 13 seats within the municipal assembly. The normally cautious ARF also denounced the elections as undemocratic (RFE/RL’s Armenian service, June 1). Even the pro-government BHK has not officially recognized their disputed outcome. The party, widely seen as the support base for Sarksyan’s predecessor Robert Kocharian, is reportedly dragging its feet over such recognition in the hope of gaining control over several Yerevan districts.
The BHK has few other bargaining chips in its ongoing haggling with the HHK and Sarksyan. Local commentators agreed that the Armenian president has cemented his power, and is now less dependent on his establishment allies. As the Yerevan daily Kapital characterized it in a June 5 editorial, "The elections in the capital have made Serzh Sarksyan’s authority more monolithic."
Accordingly, even assuming that the vote was rigged, the HHK landslide was a setback for the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition. Armenians have traditionally shown strong interest in national politics only during presidential races and have proven far more indifferent to parliamentary and local elections. Ter-Petrosian’s HAK clearly failed to reverse this phenomenon, despite conducting a vigorous election campaign. According to the CEC, only around 53 percent of Yerevan’s 770,000 eligible voters went to the polls on May 31. The real voter turnout might well have been even lower.
Official figures suggest Ter-Petrosian won in absolute terms, more than twice as many votes in Yerevan than during the 2008 presidential ballot as the HAK gained in the local elections. On June 1 Aravot another daily generally sympathetic to the opposition, claimed that this had resulted from, "bad political management and a lack of elementary organization." Leaders of the Heritage Party, another major opposition force that chose not to contest the mayoral elections, criticized the HAK in equally strong terms on June 5 (Hayots Ashkhar, June 6).
In an apparent effort to broaden its appeal, on June 3 the HAK urged all "democratic" forces, notably the ARF, to support its efforts to effect regime change in Armenia (www.tert.am, June 3). The call was extraordinary given the long history of hostility between the Ter-Petrosian camp and the ARF. The nationalist party, which was controversially banned by Ter-Petrosian in 1994, has yet to respond to the call.
As he again rallied thousands of supporters in downtown Yerevan on June 1, the charismatic ex-president promised to formulate a plan of further opposition activities at the next HAK rally scheduled for June 12. Jamestown witnessed him declaring: "Until we seriously analyze the situation, and the trends relating to our chances and those of the authorities, we will not lead the people into any adventure." This was an additional indication that Ter-Petrosian will avoid staging the type of non-stop anti-government protests that almost brought him back to power in the aftermath of the 2008 election.