Mamikon Aslanian ran the country’s third largest city until October. A bloc led by him essentially won the election with about 39 percent of the vote.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s Civil Contract party finished second with 25 percent, the most serious of setbacks suffered by it in the local polls held in 36 communities across Armenia on December 5.
Three other parties fared much worse but still won seats in the local council empowered to appoint the next head of the municipality comprising Vanadzor and nearby villages.
Aslanian was well placed to regain his post with the help of these parties despite falling short of a majority of seats in the new Vanadzor council.
The inaugural session of the council was slated for Friday. It was postponed on Wednesday after another party, which failed to win any seats, challenged the election results in court.
Armenia’s Investigative Committee said, meanwhile, that it arrested Aslanian and charged him with abuse of power and forgery. It claimed, in particular, that the former mayor illegally auctioned off two plots of municipal land during his five-year tenure.
Aslanian swiftly denied the accusations through his lawyers, who described the criminal proceedings as “political persecution.”
In a joint statement, Yervand Varosian and Lusine Sahakian, said: “After familiarizing ourselves with the essence of the accusations, it became obvious to us that Mamikon Aslanian is prosecuted for winning the election against the will of the current authorities.”
The lawyers also said their client is urging supporters to “stay calm” and rest assured that their votes “will not be squandered.”
Senior representatives of the country’s two leading opposition groups also condemned the charges and linked them with the Vanadzor election. Artur Vanetsian of the Pativ Unem bloc visited Aslanian in custody.
Some opposition figures alleged that Aslanian’s arrest is part of Pashinian’s broader efforts to forcibly install his loyalists in communities where his Civil Contract party was defeated or failed to win outright on December 5.
In one such community comprising the town of Vartenis and surrounding villages, Civil Contract won 46 percent of the vote. Two local blocs challenging it got 37 percent and 16.5 percent respectively, putting them in a position to have a common candidate elected as community head.
The leaders of those blocs announced such a deal last week. Law-enforcement authorities arrested one of them on corruption charges and searched the other’s home in the following days.
In another town, Talin, a similar power-sharing deal was reached by three other opposition groups that won 11 of the 21 seats in the local council. Pashinian’s party will control the remaining 10 seats.
One of those groups, the Hayk party, unexpectedly announced on Monday that it will not take up its 3 seats. The party’s top candidate in Talin, Karen Grigorian, cited the need to “defuse post-election tensions” but did not elaborate. Newspaper reports claimed that he made the decision under strong government pressure.