In a tense weekend election, a candidate of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s Civil Contract party narrowly failed to defeat the incumbent mayor of Abovian, a town that has long been a political stronghold of Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) leader Gagik Tsarukian.
According to preliminary results released by the Central Election Commission (CEC), Mayor Vahagn Gevorgian garnered 8,453 votes, compared with 8,058 votes polled by his main challenger, Civil Contract’s Grigor Gulian. Only 41 percent of Abovian’s 44,500 eligible voters took part in Sunday’s election.
“This is an evaluation of our work done in the last four years,” Gevorgian said of his victory as he was greeted by dozens of ecstatic supporters outside the local municipality building on Monday.
Gulian essentially accepted the election outcome, saying that he will congratulate his rival after the final vote results are released by the CEC later this week.
Gevorgian is widely believed to enjoy the BHK’s support despite not being officially endorsed by the opposition party headed by Tsarukian. The latter’s right-hand man, Eduard Babayan, and other senior BHK figures actively participated in the incumbent’s reelection campaign. Tsarukian has held sway in the town located 15 kilometers north of Yerevan for over two decades.
For his part, Gulian was backed by Civil Contract and Pashinian in particular. The prime minister travelled to Abovian last week to lead a rally held there in support of the ruling party’s mayoral candidate.
Romanos Melikian, the Civil Contract-affiliated governor of the surrounding Kotayk province, also personally campaigned for Gulian after taking a leave of absence for that purpose.
The provincial administration has for months been at loggerheads with the Abovian municipality, accusing it of corruption and mismanagement. The mayor has strongly denied the allegations currently investigated by prosecutors. Armenia’s National Security Service launched a separate corruption inquiry into the municipality just days before the mayoral election.
Tensions in Abovian rose further on Saturday following a reported arson attack on the car and home of Gulian’s election campaign manager. Gevorgian condemned the attack and denied any responsibility for it.
According to the Union of Informed Citizens, a civic group that monitored the Abovian ballot, around three dozen supporters of the mayor involved in the electoral process were briefly detained by police during Sunday’s voting. A leading member of the union, Daniel Ioannisian, expressed concern about the detentions.
Meanwhile, Pashinian downplayed his party’s defeat in the mayoral race when he spoke to reporters on Monday. “Democracy won in Abovian and that’s the most important thing,” he told reporters.
“We did the  revolution to ensure that pro-government candidates win in some places and lose in others,” Pashinian said, arguing that Civil Contract does not have the kind of undemocratic “monopoly” on power that was enjoyed by the former ruling Republican Party of Armenia.
“So these elections highlighted the fact that the Republic of Armenia is a democratic country where citizens are free to make their choice and the authorities do not use any illegal resources to ensure their candidates’ victory,” he added.
Pashinian’s relations with Tsarukian have been tense since April. In May, the pro-government majority in Armenia’s parliament implicitly threatened to strip Tsarukian of his parliament seat, saying that his entrepreneurial activities may be illegal. The BHK leader, whose party is the second largest parliamentary force, insisted that he complies with a constitutional provision that bars lawmakers from directly engaging in business.