Voters in Yerevan went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new municipal council that will appoint the Armenian capital’s mayor.
The ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and its top candidate, incumbent Mayor Taron Markarian, expected to retain control of the municipal administrations as a result of the elections held on a party-list basis.
The HHK was challenged by only two political groups: the opposition Yelk alliance and Yerkir Tsirani party. Yelk finished third in Armenia’s recent parliamentary elections won by the HHK. Several other opposition forces that fared poorly in the April 2 vote and chose not to join the Yerevan mayoral race.
Under the country’s Electoral Code, parties and blocs have to win at least 6 percent and 8 percent of the vote respectively in order to gain seats in the Yerevan council, if municipal polls are contested by more than three political groups. This means that the HHK, Yelk and Yerkir Tsirani will be represented in the new council regardless of their performance.
Both opposition contenders attacked Markarian throughout the election campaign, accusing him of corruption and mismanagement.
The 38-year-old mayor, in office since 2011, defended his track record during his campaign meetings. He insisted he has largely delivered on his campaign promises given four years ago.
“We are satisfied with our election campaign and you will see its results a few hours later,” Markarian told reporters after casting a ballot at a polling station in Yerevan.
Markarian defended his decision to avoid a live televised debate with Yelk’s mayoral candidate, Nikol Pashinian. The latter has repeatedly challenged the mayor to agree to such a debate.
President Serzh Sarkisian, who is the HHK’s top leader, voted at another polling station. He said Yerevan “will get better” if Markarian is reelected.
Pashinian, meanwhile, accused the ruling party of again buying many votes. “It’s clear to me that without vote bribes HHK would stand no chance of winning any election,” he charged after casting a ballot.
The 41-year-old former journalist, widely regarded as Markarian’s main challenger, said that hundreds of thousands of Armenians are willing to sell their votes. “We have to take into account the existence of such people,” he noted grimly.
Pashinian and other Yelk leaders demanded on Friday that the HHK be disqualified from the mayoral race because of what they presented as evidence of vote buying. It included online media footage of apparent distribution of vote bribes at an HHK campaign office in the city’s Malatia-Sebastia district. Yelk also publicized purported documents detailing vote buying by another HHK office.
The ruling party denied the allegations. The Central Election Commission, for its part, refused on Saturday to seek a court ruling disqualifying the HHK. It only agreed to ask prosecutors to investigate the Yelk allegations.
Prime Minister Karen Karapetian downplayed the alleged vote buying. “Such cases are reported during all elections, but are we sure that those were vote bribes?” he told the press during Sunday’s voting. “Law-enforcement bodies are now looking into that. Let’s wait and see what they say.”
The HHK was already accused of buying votes during the parliamentary elections. Opposition groups say that the illegal practice was instrumental in the ruling party’s landslide election victory.
An RFE/RL correspondent on Sunday again saw voters in the city’s old Kond neighborhood visiting a local HHK office before heading to a nearby polling station. Many of them had cash in their hands.
A group of men inside the office hastily left it when the reporter, Sisak Gabrielian, went in and tried to talk to them. One of those men held a stack of 5,000-dram notes ($10).
Sonia Yeghian, an HHK municipal election candidate apparently running the office, denied that they were handing out cash to impoverished voters. She claimed that the visitors are party “activists.”
Gabrielian was assaulted by government loyalists when he witnessed similar scenes in and outside the same office on April 2.
Meanwhile, the Armenian police said they have received nine reports of irregularities by noon. Those included alleged instances of multiple voting and obstruction of the work of an opposition election proxy, read a police statement. “All those cases are being verified,” it said.
Yerkir Tsirani alleged more such violations. The opposition party’s mayoral candidate, Zaruhi Postanjian, cried foul as she voted early in the morning. She said her political team is in a “combative mood” and determined to counter electoral fraud.