Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri will hold next month the most competitive ever elections of its municipal council that has until now been a largely rubber stamp body controlled by mayors loyal to the central government.
A record-high 72 candidates are vying for the 21 seats in the local Council of Elders that will be up for grabs on September 9.
A new Gyumri mayor will also be elected on that day. Samvel Balasanian, a candidate of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), is widely regarded as the election favorite, having been endorsed by President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). The crucial endorsement has led the city’s longtime Republican mayor, Vartan Ghukasian, not to seek another term in office.
The HHK and the BHK, which pulled out of Sarkisian’s coalition government in June, have nominated the largest number of candidates for the council: 17 and 13 respectively. The pro-government Orinats Yerkir Party and two major opposition groups, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the Armenian National Congress (HAK), have fielded only three candidates each.
The remaining 33 hopefuls are not affiliated with any party. Seven of them represent the City Is Ours movement set up by local civic organizations.
One of the HAK candidates, Serik Tonoyan, said the new council should act as a counterweight to the mayor. “Until now our people have never felt that they have a Council of Elders,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Everything in the city must be held in check.”
That the outgoing council has failed to perform that role was acknowledged by Felix Grigorian, a senior doctor at a local maternity hospital included on the HHK list of candidates. Grigorian stressed the importance of debates and pluralism within the municipal authorities.
The HHK is clearly looking to capitalize on its government resources to retain control of the council. Its electoral slate includes six officials from the Gyumri mayor’s office and four directors of public schools.
One of the school principals, Gayane Bichakhchian, did not deny a connection between her and her colleagues’ decision to join the race and the fact that the ruling party’s regional branch is headed by the chief of the education department of Shirak province, of which Gyumri is the capital.
“That has probably played a role,” Bichakhchian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “But the struggle here is not really political. It’s about something else. We, regardless of our party affiliations, want to see our city in good shape. This is an opportunity to contribute to that.”