By Emil Danielyan and Shakeh Avoyan
The Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) led by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian appears to have cruised to a predictable landslide victory in Sunday’s local elections, widening its control over local government bodies across the country.
Official results of the elections held in more than two thirds of some 930 local communities will be made public by the Central Election Commission on Tuesday. But preliminary figures cited by Republican leaders on Monday show that candidates affiliated with or endorsed by the HHK won the mayoral posts in 30 out of 37 Armenian cities.
“We are satisfied with the handling and results of these elections,” the Republican campaign manager, Samvel Nikoyan, told RFE/RL. “They proved that we are quite strong at the local level.”
All other major parties, which have shown little interest in the polls, trailed the Republicans by huge margins. The pro-establishment Orinats Yerkir party claimed victory in four towns and about four dozen villages.
Another influential party supporting President Robert Kocharian, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), fielded mayoral candidates in only three municipal communities and reportedly lost in all of them. Party officials appeared nonetheless satisfied with the overall vote results, saying that Dashnak candidates won in dozens of villages across the country. “We now have a pretty large representation in communities all over Armenia,” said Gegham Manukian, the Dashnaktsutyun spokesman.
Opposition parties have fared even more poorly in large communities. Yerevan’s central Kentron district, the only major opposition-controlled area in Armenia, will now be run by Gagik Beglarian, a government-linked businessman supported by the HHK. Election officials said Beglarian beat Ararat Zurabian of the opposition Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh). Zurabian had headed the Kentron administration since 1996, when the HHSh was in power.
HHSh activists claimed the vote was marred with numerous irregularities but sounded resigned to its outcome, saying that the former ruling party will not take Beglarian to court.
Another major opposition party, the National Democratic Union (AZhM), also cried foul. A member of the CEC representing the AZhM, Pavel Yedigarian, alleged numerous instances of vote buying by pro-government wealthy candidates. He claimed that one such candidate was elected mayor of Byureghavan, a small town 20 kilometers north of Yerevan, after distributing “1,500 sacks of flour” to local voters.
“In such circumstances the opposition can not make a strong showing,” Yedigarian told RFE/RL.
The AZhM’s campaign manager, Aleksandr Butaev, summed up the dominant opposition mood when he complained that “it is money and government influence, not ideas, that count in Armenian local elections.”
However, Nikoyan denied rivals’ claims that the ruling HHK has relied heavily on government levers to affect the vote results in many constituencies. “We have achieved these results without using our government levers because we realize that those would only have temporary effects,” he said.
Still, Nikoyan admitted that his party will try to use its hold on many local governments to its advantage in next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
Most of the elected HHK candidates already served as mayors. The nationalist party, which has co-opted many senior government officials in recent years, won control of four new cities: Echmiadzin, Bert, Dilijan and Kapan. In Echmiadzin, which hosts the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Republicans succeeded in ousting the incumbent mayor Yervand Aghvanian who bitterly criticized Markarian’s government in August.
By attacking the government in front of Kocharian and several thousand local government officials, Aghvanian had fueled speculation that the president is preparing ground for an eventual change of the government. But such a development appears very unlikely after the HHK’s electoral success. It will only bolster Markarian’s position.
In another Yerevan district, Erebuni, the incumbent Republican community head Mher Sedrakian ran unopposed and was easily reelected for another three-year time. Elections in held in four other city districts earlier this year were also won by Republican candidates.
The overall picture in hundreds of rural communities was not clear as of Monday evening, with most parties still tabulating information received from there. Nor was it known how many seats in the local legislative councils the HHK and other parties have won.
According to the CEC, some 46 percent of eligible voters took part in Sunday’s voting, which was monitored by more than a thousand local and international observers. The voter turnout was just 28 percent during the previous local elections held three years ago. No serious vote irregularities that could affect the vote results have been reported to the CEC so far.
“The holding of these elections is seen as an important stage in Armenia’s efforts to consolidate and strengthen democratic institutions at the local level,” said Christopher Newbury, head of a 9-strong monitoring mission from the Council of Europe. “Voting took place without our observing any major incidents, and we found it to be generally well organized.”
He also noted that the voter lists, which were notoriously flawed during previous elections, were now far more accurate. Media reports from polling stations have also attested to the improvement.
Newbury, however, stopped short of describing the vote as free and fair, saying that the Council of Europe monitors “wish to reserve our position until we have a fuller picture.” “I think we remain to be completely satisfied at this moment, but it is too early to give a final and definitive answer,” he told a news conference in Yerevan.
The mission representing the Council’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe is due release it final election report by mid-November.