The mostly rural community has been in turmoil since the December 5 election of a local council empowered to appoint its mayor. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian Civil Contract party garnered most votes but fell short of an overall majority in the 27-member council, winning only 13 seats there.
The remaining 14 seats were won by two local opposition blocs. They reached a power-sharing deal and nominated one of their leaders, Aharon Khachatrian, for the post of community head.
The 14 opposition members of the new Vartenis council elected Khachatrian as mayor during its inaugural session held on December 30. Civil Contract members led by Aram Melkonian, Vartenis’s incumbent mayor seeking reelection, tried to disrupt the session before walking out in protest.
Melkonian went on to ask Armenia’s Administrative Court to annul the appointment of the new mayor, saying that it was “illegal.” The opposition forces dismissed the allegation and scheduled Khachatrian’s inauguration for Monday.
Scores of police officers deployed at the entrance to the local government building did not allow the council majority to enter it to hold the swearing-in ceremony. Local police chiefs told the oppositionists that Khachatrian cannot start performing his duties because of the lawsuit filed by the ruling party.
The ban angered Khachatrian’s supporters who gathered outside the building. “One gets the impression that the Civil Contract party has started a civil war against residents of Vartenis,” said one of them.
A lawyer representing Khachatrian insisted that council members are legally allowed to enter the building regardless of the court case. “The police are overstepping their powers,” he said.
Khachatrian had to take an oath of office in the building’s courtyard. His loyalists admitted that he will not be able to take office before a court verdict.
Meanwhile, Melkonian said that the police acted on his orders. “I personally made sure that this buffoonery doesn’t take place,” the incumbent mayor told reporters.
Melkonian said that the two opposition forces must not be allowed to run the community comprising Vartenis and two dozen villages because they “deceived” voters. He did not elaborate.
On Monday, the ruling party’s candidate called on all newly elected council members to resign and pave the way for a repeat election.
“The council held a session and elected a community head. What should we annul after that?” countered Davit Shahnazarian of the United Vartenis bloc allied to Khachatrian’s alliance.
United Vartenis’s leader was arrested on corruption charges shortly after the power-sharing deal cut by the two groups. Opposition politicians and human rights campaigners in Yerevan condemned his arrest, saying that it is part of a government crackdown on political figures who defeated Pashinian’s party in some of the three dozen communities across Armenia that elected their local councils on December 5.
Arman Tatoyan, the country’s human rights ombudsman, charged on December 17 that opposition groups that did well there are being illegally pressured not to install their leaders or allies as community heads.
“These practices are fundamentally at odds with democratic norms,” said Tatoyan.
Pashinian’s political allies maintain that neither these nor any other post-election criminal cases are politically motivated.
Pashinian’s party suffered its biggest election setback in Vanadzor, Armenia’s third largest city. It won only 25 percent of the vote there, compared with 39 percent polled by a local bloc led by former Vanadzor Mayor Mamikon Aslanian.
Aslanian was thus well-placed to regain his post lost in October. But he was arrested on December 15 on corruption charges rejected by him as politically motivated.
The Administrative Court blocked the first session of the new Vanadzor council slated for December 24. It cited an appeal against the local election results lodged by another party that fared poorly in the ballot.