The governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) claimed victory in local elections held in about 300 communities on Sunday but risked losing control of Vanadzor, the country’s third largest city.
Armen Ashotian, an HHK deputy chairman, said on Monday candidates affiliated with President Serzh Sarkisian’s party prevailed in at least 60 percent of those communities that elected their mayors and local councils.Candidates endorsed by the HHK won in several dozen other towns and villages, he said.
The Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), a nominally opposition force formerly headed by businessman Gagik Tsarukian, appeared to have finished a distant second. Other major opposition parties led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and parliament deputy Nikol Pashinian fared far more poorly in the nationwide polls.
Vanadzor as well as Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri saw the tightest contests, with about a dozen parties vying for seats in municipal councils that will choose their next mayors. That contrasted with a low voter turnout officially registered there: 36.6 percent in Gyumri and 42.7 percent in Vanadzor.
The HHK won most votes in both communities but fell short of securing an outright majority in the councils.
In Gyumri, preliminary official results showed an HHK-backed bloc of the incumbent Mayor Samvel Balasanian garnering almost 35 percent of the vote, followed by the BHK (21.6 percent) and the Armenian Renaissance Party (10.6 percent), another opposition group formerly known as Orinats Yerkir.
GALA, an opposition party recently formed by an eponymous TV channel based in Gyumri, finished fourth with 10.5 percent, according to the Central Election Commission (CEC). No other party passed the 6 percent vote threshold for being represented in the local assembly.
In particular, Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) and Pashinian’s Civil Contract each got less than 2 percent of the vote in Gyumri. They did only slightly better in Vanadzor.
“We suffered severe defeats in Gyumri and Vanadzor,” Pashinian declared on his Facebook page on Monday.
Ashotian insisted that Balasanian’s bloc has enough seats to keep the Gyumri mayor in office for four more years.
According to the CEC, the HHK won 37.5 percent of the vote in Vanadzor, giving it 13 council seats. The ruling party can also count on the backing of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), its junior coalition partner that will have 2 seats in the local legislature.
Bright Armenia, a new opposition party led the Vanadzor-based politician Edmon Marukian, finished second with 27.5 percent of the vote and 10 seats, followed by the Armenian Renaissance (5 seats) and the BHK (3 seats). The three parties are thus in a position to jointly appoint Vanadzor’s new mayor.
Marukian, who is a member of Armenia’s parliament, was quick to offer a power-sharing deal to the BHK and the Armenian Renaissance. “The three of us can make the HHK an opposition force in Vanadzor,” he told a news conference.
The Armenian Renaissance reacted ambiguously to the proposal. In a statement, the party led by Artur Baghdasarian suggested that Bright Armenia “join” the Armenian Renaissance and “equally share responsibility” for governing the city.
There was no immediate reaction from the BHK. Ashotian indicated, meanwhile, that the HHK is also ready to enter into a coalition arrangement in Vanadzor.
Speaking at a news conference, the HHK vice-chairman portrayed the elections as a major success for President Sarkisian’s party that has long controlled most central and local government bodies in Armenia. He said the polls underlined the HHK’s status as the country’s dominant political force.
The HHK also capitalized on its financial and administrative resources to win in the majority of 317 other mostly rural communities that elected local government bodies on September 18.
Sunday’s polls were monitored by hundreds of local observers representing Armenian non-governmental organizations. One such group, the Citizen Observer, deployed 230 monitors in 18 communities. It said on Monday that they have reported 190 instances of various irregularities, including multiple voting and vote buying.
“Many people did not find their names on voter lists and there were cases of dead people remaining on the lists,” said Tigran Yegorian, a Citizen Observer representative. “There were also reports of vote buying.”
Yegorian also alleged “widespread” pressure exerted on observers by election officials.
During Sunday’s voting RFE/RL correspondents witnessed large groups of men standing outside several polling stations in Gyumri in violation of Armenian law. The men dispersed after being approached and filmed by the journalists.