Yerevan City Election Gives Opposition Second Chance
Rarely has a city council election attracted such notice. Yerevan's May 31 municipal election marks not only the first time voters can play a role in choosing their own mayor, but, for Armenia's largest opposition movement, a chance to make up for the loss of last year's presidential election.
The vote's national implications can be seen in the banners promoting ex-President Levon Ter-Petrosian as a candidate for the city council. "Let's change Armenia. Let's start with Yerevan!," they read. If Ter-Petrosian's Armenian National Congress wins one vote over 40 percent of the council's 65 seats, the 64-year-old former Armenian leader would be named Yerevan's new mayor. The president previously appointed the four-year post.
At a May 1 rally, Ter Petrosian embraced claims that his candidacy has politicized the city council race.
Voters should "only be grateful to the Armenian National Congress for politicizing the . . .election," he told onlookers. " . . . For it [the ANC], will try to prevent the criminalization of the election, by doing so."
Six parties aside from the Armenian National Congress alliance have registered for the race, according to the Central Election Commission. Some 771,353 registered voters are eligible to take part.
Ter-Petrosian supporters affirm that the vote is a chance to get back their own after the 2008 presidential vote, an election they assert was rigged against the ex-president.
"We will win!" proclaimed one voter, using Ter Petrosian's presidential campaign slogan while dancing at a May 4 rally in Yerevan's Arabkir district. "And there are hopes for justice!"
But many voters just want a return to calm. Recollections of the brutal March 1, 2008 police crackdown on opposition activists protesting the presidential election results still linger on.
"We are sick and tired of shocks and want stability," said 57-year-old Mariam Galstian, who supports Yerevan's incumbent pro-government mayor, Gagik Beglarian. "It's not the time for radical changes. It's only the people who suffer the consequences. Let it stay at it is."
One candidate has already capitalized on that need for nurture. At a May 6 meeting with voters in Yerevan's Davitashen district, Heghine Bisharian, the lead candidate for the Country of Law Party, a member of Armenia's ruling coalition, declared that the Armenian capital is in need of a woman's care. Greater displays of kindness should be among voters' chief concerns, Bisharian affirmed.
Amidst a heavy downpour, Bisharian took that theme one step forward and compared herself to the Biblical character, Noah, who saved the Earth's animals from a flood. (Legend names the alleged great-great-grandson of Noah, Hayk, as the founder of Armenia.)
"Noah today is Heghine Bisharian," Bisharian proclaimed.
Other candidates are wheeling out more conventional themes to win voters' support.
Health Minister Harutiun Kushkian, who heads the list of candidates for the Prosperous Armenia Party, another government coalition member, relies on "We keep our promises!" A touch of celebrity is added, too. Prosperous Armenia Party leader Gagik Tsarukian, a flamboyant oligarch and onetime world arm wrestling champion, has promised to attend Kushkian's meetings with voters.
Incumbent Mayor Beglarian, a member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, tries to cast himself as a man of action, who will accomplish what was not done in Yerevan during Soviet times - improving streets and water lines, among other tasks. "I say no high flown words!," he pledged, in an apparent reference to the emotional oratory of Ter Petrosian.
Independent political analyst Yervand Bozoian commented that the 27-day campaign "will be quite intense," but, so far, there is little sign that that intensity will mark candidates' campaign platforms. Routine problems of garbage collection, improved roads, water supplies and social welfare services are the focus.
The lack of detailed proposals, however, does not appear to have deterred Yerevan voters. A recent survey run by the Sociometer center found that only 30 percent of 1,650 voting-age respondents said that they would stay away from the polls on May 31.
"Two factors can affect the conduct and the result of the election -- its politicization and the economic crisis," said the center's head, Aharon Adibekian. Both factors are likely to spark interest in the vote, he added.
Party campaign staff interviewed by EurasiaNet indicated no problems to date with intimidation, ad restrictions or other forms of interference with their campaigns. The Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, however, has a different take.
"The Congress delegation understood that there were threats to the proper conduct of these elections, in particular with respect to the registration and mobilisation of voters, the counting of votes, and media objectivity in the campaign," read a statement released by the Council of Europe's information office in Yerevan.
The "real needs of the citizens of Yerevan could be brushed aside because of . . . confrontation" between the opposition and governing coalition in the city council vote, said delegation member Fabio Pellegrini.
While Ter Petrosian affirms that such political jostling is a plus, Republican Party spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov underlines that politics will not botch the election.
"All the necessary conditions for democratic elections have been created," said Sharmazanov.
Editor's Note: Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan.