By Astghik Bedevian and Anush Martirosian
Armenia’s main opposition alliance has decided to contest the forthcoming municipal elections in Yerevan and nominate its top leader, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, as its candidate for the post of city mayor.
The decision, which should shape political developments in the country in the coming months, was announced on Sunday after Ter-Petrosian’s meeting with leaders of 18 opposition groups aligned in his Armenian National Congress (HAK).
In a written statement, the HAK’s Central Office said they agreed that the May 31 elections of the first municipal council in 15 years will mark a “pivotal phase” in the opposition campaign for leadership change in Armenia. The statement pointed to Yerevan’s “substantial weight in the country’s political and economic life.”
“With this move, we are sending a very clear political message to the entire society: we regard the elections of Yerevan mayor … as a very serious opportunity to change the existing dictatorial system and, if you like, as a second round of the  presidential elections,” the HAK office coordinator, Levon Zurabian, told RFE/RL.
Ter-Petrosian was the main opposition candidate in the presidential election controversially won by Serzh Sarkisian. Ter-Petrosian and his supporters continue to regard the ex-president as the rightful winner of the vote that was followed by the worst street clashes in Armenia’s history.
Yerevan mayors have until now been appointed by the president of the republic. One of the amendments to the Armenian constitution enacted in late 2005 transfers that prerogative to the municipal council to be elected on May 31. Under a recently adopted law, the party or alliance winning more than 40 percent of the vote in the elections would gain the majority of the 65 council seats and be able to single-handedly name the Armenian capital’s next mayor.
President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) has already announced its intention to win the upcoming polls that will contested only under the system of proportional representation. Its list of candidates will be topped by current Yerevan Mayor Gagik Beglarian.
“Gagik Beglarian can not fail to become mayor because he is the candidate of the Republican Party,” Galust Sahakian, the leader of the HHK faction in the Armenian parliament, told RFE/RL on Monday.
“The Republican Party is optimistic about the results of the May 31 elections and considers its chances quite good, regardless of whether it will be facing Levon Ter-Petrosian or [U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State] Matthew Bryza,” said another senior HHK lawmaker, Armen Ashotian.
Ashotian admitted that Ter-Petrosian’s decision to run for mayor took him by surprise. “Levon Ter-Petrosian’s decision to enter the fray is interesting,” he said. “It heralds an attempt to politicize those elections, which will presumably mean political debates and dialogues.”
Sahakian, for his part, speculated that Ter-Petrosian is not interested in the top post in the capital and only wants to exploit the municipal elections for furthering his political agenda. “If he was interested, one could presume that his next step would be to run for village mayor,” Sahakian said tartly.
The HAK’s Zurabian claimed that opposition victory in the vote is “inevitable.” He also acknowledged that the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition would use control over the Yerevan municipality for “restoring constitutional order in Armenia.” “Ter-Petrosian would serve as mayor as long as it takes to achieve that goal,” he said.
Addressing thousands of supporters who rallied in Yerevan on March 1, Ter-Petrosian made clear that he will not seek to stage an anti-government “revolution” and has opted instead for a “prolonged struggle” against the Sarkisian administration. “Any regime change must take place through solely constitutional means,” he said. “Namely, by means of legal elections, which is the only guarantee of establishing a democratic state.”
The HAK leadership also said that it will open negotiations with another major opposition force, the Zharangutyun (Heritage) party of Raffi Hovannisian, on the possibility of forming an electoral alliance. Zharangutyun leaders have repeatedly advocated the idea in public.
The governing council of Hovannisian’s party, which had endorsed Ter-Petrosian’s presidential candidacy, was scheduled to meet and discuss the issue late on Monday.