Twelve political parties and alliances are taking part in municipal elections in Yerevan in which campaigning formally kicked off on Monday, September 10.
Residents of the Armenian capital will go to the polls on September 23 to elect a 65-member Council of Elders reflecting their vote proportionally. The body will then elect a new mayor of Yerevan. Under Armenian election law, if any of the political parties and alliances manages to gain more than 40 percent of the vote, the top candidate on its list will be elected mayor automatically.
This is the first major election in Armenia since the change of government that took place in spring, with reformist leader Nikol Pashinian forming a new cabinet.
Pashinian and his team members have vowed to ensure free, fair and democratic elections.
Opposition parties and groups in Armenia have for years insisted that elections are rigged in Armenia in favor of the ruling party. Vote buying and administrative pressure on voters have been singled out by Armenian opposition leaders as the most common ways through which the governing party and its candidates managed to win elections in Armenia in recent years.
The Pashinian government last week had a raft of amendments passed by parliament to criminalize not only direct vote buying but also other enticements that candidates and parties running in elections may offer to voters in exchange for their votes.
The pro-Pashinian alliance at the current elections is led by popular actor and producer Hayk Marutian.
Marutian, 41, leads the My Step bloc that includes members of the Civil Contract party of Pashinian as well as representatives of civil groups and individuals like himself who actively participated in the peaceful street protests that led to the change of government in April-May.
Apart from promising to solve major problems facing Yerevan residents, including transportation, waste management, housing construction and others, Marutian above all vowed that “all publicly important decisions must be taken through local referendums.”
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) last week the top candidate of the pro-Pashinian alliance did not deny that people who will be voting for My Step will also be voting for the prime minister.
“That’s the truth. Residents of Yerevan are voting for both Pashinian and me, for both the political team and me. I am also part of this political team,” Marutian said.
Other political parties and groups also launched their campaigns in the Yerevan elections, vowing to do their best for residents of the Armenian capital.
Lawmaker Naira Zohrabian, who tops the list of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) of tycoon Gagik Tsarukian, met with voters in the southeastern Nubarashen district where the presence of a landfill nearby is a major problem.
Zohrabian promised that, if elected mayor, she will solve the problem of the Nubarashen landfill site, regulate issues connected with transportation, housing construction, road repairs, etc.
“No one will steal a single penny from Yerevan residents anymore, be sure. I will be hundred times as strong as all the law-enforcement structures, the police, the National Security Service. The National Security Service and other law-enforcement agencies will become redundant in Yerevan,” she said.
BHK leader Tsarukian also attended the party’s first meeting with voters as part of the current campaign. As during previous years citizens approached him asking for help in solving various problems.
Still before the start of the campaign Tsarukian categorically denied the speculation that he had instructed his team to give out cash for votes. “Those who make such speculations are our enemies. If anyone can prove it, if such a thing happens I am ready to be subjected to punishment,” the tycoon said on September 4.
The start of the campaign was marred by an incident on Sunday in which a member and a supporter of Heritage, one of the parties running in the elections, were briefly detained by police for sidewalk graffiti.
Armen Martirosian, the leader of Heritage, said the two young men did not break any law and expressed a hope that no such thing will occur again during the campaign period.
Heritage’s mayoral candidate is Raffi Hovannisian, who served as Armenia’s first foreign minister in 1991-1992 and was a top rival of former President Serzh Sarkisian in the disputed 2013 presidential election.
Among other major parties and blocs contesting the elections are Yerkir Tsirani of former lawmaker Zaruhi Postanjian, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), Orinats Yerkir of former secretary of the Security Council Artur Baghdasarian and the Luys alliance led by Pashinian ally Artak Zeynalian, who currently holds the post of the justice minister.
The former ruling Republican Party of Armenia is not participating in the current elections. Its senior member Taron Markarian resigned in July after serving as Yerevan mayor for seven years. The Council of Elders could not elect a new mayor, triggering early municipal elections by popular vote.