Armenia’s ruling party believes that scrapping direct mayoral elections in two major cities believed to be opposition strongholds will help reduce “personal feud” and reinstate truly competitive environments in local polls.
The measure is envisaged for Gyumri and Vanadzor under the draft Electoral Code unveiled by the government last week.
The second and third largest cities of Armenia are known for their predominantly opposition sentiments during national elections, but so far mostly people loyal to the central government have been elected as mayors in direct elections there.
Under the proposed change, people in Gyumri and Vanadzor will vote for political parties and blocs running for municipal councils where the majority will later elect the mayor.
The model has been used in capital Yerevan since 2009, with representatives of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) winning all city elections since then. Unlike Gyumri and Vanadzor, however, before the introduction of indirect elections Yerevan’s mayors were appointed by the country’s president and the change was welcomed by many as a step forward in terms of democracy.
HHK lawmaker Sukias Avetisian, who represents the province of Shirak in parliament, believes that indirect mayoral elections in two major Armenian cities will help overcome the personal animosity that emerges there every time different individuals participate in mayoral elections.
“I think this will provide solutions, and we will be able to avoid mutual hostility and witness truly competitive elections in Gyumri and Vanadzor,” he said.
In the past few national elections a majority of voters in both Gyumri and Vanadzor voted against government candidates, favoring the opposition.
Some believe the new changes will complicate the life of oppositionists, especially individuals who would like to run for mayors, as if the change is implemented, only representatives of political parties will be able to become mayors.
Human rights activist Seyran Martirosian thinks that this way the government seeks to establish more control over areas where it traditionally loses to the opposition. “The authorities have decided to switch to this system because both cities have pro-opposition sentiments. Discussions are being held at two levels. At one level they are talking about advantages [of indirect elections], but in narrow circles they are discussing how electoral processes should become more manageable especially in territories where authorities have less control. If there were other cities and towns like Gyumri and Vanadzor, it is possible that they would have applied this model there, too,” he said.
A representative of the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), however, downplays the impact of the change on his party’s chances of winning elections in the provinces. On the contrary, Murad Grigorian, the leader of the HAK’s chapter in Gyumri, thinks that this way it will become only easier for them to win especially in Gyumri and Vanadzor. He said they can’t lose their electorates and are getting ready for local elections due in the two cities next fall.
“We are going to take part in the elections as a separate force knowing well the sentiments of the residents as well as our own resources,” Grigorian said.
The HHK’s Avetisian, meanwhile, put a brave face on the ruling party’s recent defeats in Gyumri and Vanadzor, saying that the pro-opposition stance of many local residents was the result of poor social and economic conditions rather than their specific political orientation.
Both Gyumri and Vanadzor were affected by a devastating earthquake that hit the north of Armenia in 1988. More than a quarter of a century after the quake that killed 25,000 and left tens of thousands of people without shelter, thousands of families in Gyumri still have no homes of their own and continue to live in makeshift housing. Lack of employment opportunities in the region also forces many to choose seasonal migrant work abroad, mostly in Russia.