By Astghik Bedevian
Setting a precedent for the upcoming parliamentary elections, the governing Republican Party (HHK) controversially defeated the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) of businessman Gagik Tsarukian in a Sunday mayoral vote in the southern town of Armavir.
According to official election results released on Monday, Armavir’s incumbent Republican mayor, Ruben Khlghatian, was reelected with almost 53 percent of the vote. His main challenger representing the BHK, Arayik Aghababian, got 43.3 percent. The reported voter turnout of 61 percent was unusually high for an Armenian local election.
It was the first electoral clash between the two apparent frontrunners in the unfolding parliamentary race, and both of them went to great lengths to win the vote. Its outcome, greatly influenced by the HHK’s grip on the local government and election commissions, showed the limits of Tsarukian’s populist strategy and vast financial resources.
Speaking to RFE/RL on Monday, Aghababian refused to concede defeat and alleged “large-scale falsifications.” “Yesterday’s elections were an organized sham,” he said, pledging to challenge the official results.
However, the local election commission did not receive any written protests from him by the 2 p.m. legal deadline, suggesting that the BHK leadership chose to back away from a confrontation with the Republicans in the wake of the sudden death of their leader, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian. No serious incidents were reported during the voting.
Armavir was on Sunday flooded with expensive cars belonging to prominent HHK and BHK figures who descended on the small town to underscore the vote’s significance for both rival camps. Aghababian’s campaign headquarters was packed with well-built men with very short haircuts, the typical appearance of Tsarukian’s notoriously unruly bodyguards. They toured local polling stations throughout the day, in an obvious attempt to discourage possible vote rigging.
Tsarukian, who has spent heavily on Aghababian’s election campaign, himself was absent from Armavir on voting day, leaving it one of his close associates, Deputy Transport Minister Vartan Vartanian, to monitor the proceedings. Vartanian complained on Sunday that the Republicans are making the most of their government levers to win the ballot.
Interviewed by RFE/RL, Khlghatian bluntly acknowledged that. “Surely, my employees have to come and vote for me,” he said, referring to more than 500 local government officials, schoolteachers, doctors and other public sector employees.
The mayor was also clearly buoyed by the backing of several prominent individuals who have close ties with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, the HHK’s de facto leader, and hold sway in the broader Armavir region. Among them was Seyran Saroyan, a recently retired top army general.
(Photolur photo: The BHK campaign headquarters in Armavir.)