Voters in Yerevan cast ballots on Sunday in snap local elections seen as the first major test of Armenia’s new government headed by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
Twelve parties and blocs are vying for 65 seats in the municipal council that will elect a new mayor of the Armenian capital. The vote threshold for being represented in the council is set 6 percent for parties and 8 percent for blocs.
Pashinian’s My Step alliance is widely regarded as the election favorite because of the popularity of the 43-year-old premier, who swept to power in May in a wave of mass protests that brought down the country’s previous government. Its mayoral candidate, Hayk Marutian, is a 40-year-old television comedian.
Pashinian actively participated in My Step’s election campaign, lambasting its rivals and portraying the mayoral race as a referendum on his political future. The premier said on Thursday that a landslide victory in the vote is critical for the success of his plans to force fresh parliamentary elections in the coming months.
My Step’s main challengers are the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) of businessman Gagik Tsarukian and the Luys alliance comprising two other parties. All three parties have ministerial posts in the current government. They have denounced Pashinian’s public allegations that at least some of them tried to secretly collaborate with the former ruling Republican Party (HHK).
Pashinian dismissed this criticism when he spoke to reporters after casting a ballot at a polling station in Yerevan. “One should get used to real elections and a real campaign,” he said.
Pashinian also warned against attempts to buy votes or resort to other irregularities. The election will be truly democratic, he said.
The BHK’s mayoral candidate, Naira Zohrabian, cast doubt on those assurances, however, accusing law-enforcement authorities of systematically harassing her supporters during the two-week campaign. She said that the Armenian police detained 300 BHK activists on suspicion of handing out vote bribes but failed to find any evidence of the illegal practice.
On Saturday, the police searched one of the BHK’s campaign offices in Yerevan on the same grounds. Nobody was detained as a result. Zohrabian condemned the raid as illegal “counterpropaganda” against her party.
Also criticizing Pashinian was Mikael Manukian, the mayoral candidate of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), another party represented in the government. “Isn’t such an intensive participation of the prime minister in the elections an abuse of administrative levers?” he told reporters.
Manukian acknowledged at the same time that he and his party were not subjected to smear campaigns or government pressure during the mayoral race.