Polling centers across Yerevan opened early on Sunday for local elections that pitted President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK) against Armenia’s other major political groups hoping to end its control over the municipal administration.
Six parties and one bloc are vying for 65 seats in Yerevan’s Council of Elders that will elect a new city mayor. They need to win at least 6 percent of the vote in order to be represented in the council. A contender getting over 40 percent of the vote would see its top candidate automatically become mayor.
According to the Central Election Commission, 15 percent of the Armenian capital’s 816,500 eligible voters cast ballots by 11 a.m., three hours after the opening of the polls.
Sarkisian and his wife Rita voted at a polling station in the city center in the morning. “I voted for a developing, good-looking and comfortable Yerevan,” the president told journalists there.
“I voted for the person and political force that have a clear idea of the Yerevan mayor’s and municipality’s place and role in Armenia’s system of state governance and political life in general,” he said.
Sarkisian refused to comment on the HHK’s chances of winning the elections held under the system of proportional representation.
Other senior members of the ruling party have expressed confidence that it will retain its majority in the municipal council and reinstall incumbent Taron Markarian as Yerevan mayor. Opposition groups claim that the HHK cannot achieve that without vote rigging and buying.
Markarian, 35, voted near his place of residence in the city’s northern Avan district. “I am confident that in the next few years Yerevan residents will have a capital they have dreamed about,” he said.
Opposition representatives and local observers accused the HHK of buying votes and committing other violations shortly after the start of voting. As was the case in the previous Armenian elections, there were reports of buses ferrying voters to various polling stations.
“There are serious concerns and suspicions that the elections are being directed,” said Vartan Oskanian, the top candidate of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the HHK’s arguably main challenger. He specifically expressed concern over the “inexplicable” presence of an unusually large number of voters at some polling stations.
Oskanian also said that the BHK is cooperating with the other opposition forces in trying to ensure that “the election results are as close to the people’s desires and will as possible.”
Armen Rustamian, the mayoral candidate of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), also spoke of a suspiciously high voter turnout. “We have long been talking about all possible falsifications, and I think that these elections will not be an exception,” he told reporters. “We must do everything to minimize them.”
Rustamian said Dashnaktsutyun is “in touch” with the other forces challenging the BHK in trying to prevent fraud. “I hope that all non-governmental forces will be involved in this process. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case,” he added.
For his part, Armen Martirosian of the opposition bloc Barev Yerevan alleged widespread vote buying. “Vote bribes have been handed out all over Yerevan,” he claimed. “Unfortunately, neither the police nor the National Security Service has reacted to that large-scale practice.”
Martirosian, who tops Barev Yerevan’s electoral list, already charged on Friday that both the ruling HHK and the BHK are engaged in vote buying. The BHK angrily denied the allegations.