By Shakeh Avoyan and Astghik Bedevian
A 26-year-old protégé of one of Armenia’s most powerful “oligarchs” will govern Yerevan’s poorest administrative district after winning a weekend local election that appeared to have degenerated into a vote buying contest.
According to official results of the vote ignored by the Armenian opposition, Mher Hovannisian easily defeated Ruben Asatrian, the incumbent prefect of the southern Nubarashen district who supports the central government but is not affiliated with any political party. Asatrian, who held the post for the past 22 years, won only 13 percent of the vote.
The outcome of the race was all but predetermined by the fact that Hovannisian is actively backed and sponsored by Gagik Tsarukian, one of the country’s richest and most feared men close to President Robert Kocharian. Hovannisian’s father is reportedly a close partner of Tsarukian and runs the biggest local business, a liquefied gas station. The tycoon’s support for the young man translated into heavy campaign spending and control of the local election commissions.
There were numerous witness accounts of what is increasingly becoming the defining feature of Armenian local elections: vote bribes. Many local voters admitted accepting cash and food from both candidates.
Elderly people in particular described how Hovannisian’s representatives collected their passports ahead of the ballot after they agreed to vote for him in exchange for 5,000 drams ($11). “We got our money and they gave back our passports,” said one man.
“Five thousand drams,” clarified another, female pensioner. The sum is comparable to her monthly pension.
Both voters insisted that they were not told to go to cast their ballots on voting day while they got their passports back. Someone else presumably “voted” in their place. The passports contain voters’ signatures and other personal information required by election officials.
Hovannisian, who refused to be interviewed inside his campaign headquarters, acknowledged on Friday that his campaign workers collected passports but denied handing out cash or other kickbacks. “We are simply clarifying voter lists with passports,” he told RFE/RL. “There are lots of inaccuracies in the lists.”
The winner and his campaign managers were not available for comment on Monday. “They partied all night and are probably taking rest now,” explained an aide.
Residents of the run-down area said they have grown accustomed to selling their votes. “You think he didn’t do us any favors when getting elected?” one woman said, referring to the defeated prefect. “He too paid people to vote for him. Everyone does that. The same thing happened here.”
“It’s assistance, not a bribe,” she added.
Armenian law strictly prohibits election candidates from providing any material compensation or services to voters. However, vote buying has been commonplace in the presidential, parliamentary and especially local elections held in recent years. Nobody has been prosecuted for the practice so far.
Hovannisian, meanwhile, becomes the youngest head of a local government in Armenia. The previous age record for the job was set last May by the 27-year-old son of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian who was elected unopposed in the city’s northern Avan district. Taron Markarian’s election followed a large-scale repair of local roads.
Nubarashen was one of three Yerevan districts that elected its chief executives and “councils of aldermen” on Sunday. The election was a mere formality in the neighboring Erebuni district where the incumbent prefect, Mher Sedrakian, ran unopposed and was always assured of reelection. Sedrakian enjoyed the backing of Kocharian and Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK).
The closest and most tense race unfolded in the northern Kanaker-Zeytun district whose incumbent head, Ruben Sinoyan, came in only third. The two frontrunners there are government-connected businessmen. Preliminary vote results showed one of them, Ara Kotanjian, leading the other candidate, Valeri Harutiunian, by a razor-thin margin of 84 votes.
Kotanjian was quick to claim victory on Monday. “I think that in reality I won by a margin of 1,000-1,200 votes,” he told RFE/RL, accusing his challenger of vote manipulation.
His supporters claimed that Harutiunian, who managed Yerevan’s Zvartnots international airport in the past, also paved streets and distributed cash during the campaign. “There were such rumors circulating in the community, but I don’t want to talk about that,” said Kotanjian. “Let them hand out cash or pave streets but not steal my votes.”
The rival camp refused to concede defeat. “According to our tally, we are leading by 300 votes, but we will wait for the final results before deciding what to do next,” said one campaigner.
The local election commission, for its part, reported about 200 vote “discrepancies,” suggesting that a re-run of the Kanaker-Zeytun ballot is a real possibility.
The Armenian opposition has largely boycotted the ongoing local elections across the country which will reach their peak next month. Opposition leaders claim, that elections in Armenia can not be free and fair as long as Kocharian is in power.
Still, the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance did filed a candidate for next Sunday’s election in Yerevan’s central Kentron district. Its current prefect, Gagik Beglarian, is a businessman close to Kocharian.
(Photolur photo: Mher Hovannisian.)