This Sunday, September 17, residents of the Armenian capital Yerevan will elect its city council, which in turn will choose the next mayor.
The 800,000-plus electorate will choose among thirteen parties and one bloc to fill the 65-seat city council.
The poll is a crucial test of strength for the ruling Civil Contract party, whose popularity declined sharply after the country's defeat in the Second Karabakh War in 2020 but which managed to hang on to power in the 2021 snap parliamentary election.
It is held amid apprehensions of renewed conflict with Azerbaijan and a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh, which has now been under Azerbaijani blockade for over nine months.
The biggest opposition groups, the former ruling Republican Party and Armenian Revolutionary Federation (which form the Armenia alliance in parliament), are sitting out this election. The Republicans say now is no time to focus on local government elections given the Karabakh crisis while ARF decided not to take part after the opposition failed to agree on a single candidate.
The result is a lack of notable names of the established opposition on the ballot and, potentially, a chance for new forces to gain a foothold in Armenian politics.
The ruling party's mayoral candidate is Tigran Avinyan, who has been a deputy mayor since 2022. He has served as acting mayor since Hracha Sargsyan's resignation in March, and has thus been in the spotlight as the primary implementer of reforms in the city and had the chance to garner support among voters.
Avinyan's chief rival is comedian and former mayor Hayk Marutyan.
Marutyan was elected mayor in a landslide in September 2018 with the backing of Civil Contract and its leader Nikol Pashinyan, who had come to power in the "velvet revolution" some five months earlier.
He left Civil Contract in late 2020, after the Second Karabakh War. Ruling party council members removed him a year later, after he delivered a litany of accusations against the ruling elite, including misappropriating funds and issuing illegal construction permits.
After he left office, he returned to comedy, performing a stand-up routine titled "The Mayor" about his experience in power and his problems with the ruling team.
He is running atop the list of the small National Progress party which includes several current and former city council members who supported him after he split from Civil Contract.
Marutyan has the advantage of not being associated with the ruling party's traditional main rivals, the Republican Party (which ruled Armenia from 1998 to 2018) and its allies, who have failed to mount a serious challenge to Civil Contract in the postwar era largely because of the stink of corruption lingering from their time in power.
The ruling party appears to see Marutyan as a real threat, judging by the expensive social media campaign that has been launched against him.
(Civil Contract has been credibly accused of broader abuse of administrative resources by election watchdogs and media outlets.)
Another party, Aprelou Yerkir, which calls itself "Country of Living" in English, is also seen as a contender. Its mayoral candidate is Mane Tandilyan, another former ruling party ally who served as minister of social affairs.
The party is backed by Russian-Armenian billionaire and former Nagorno-Karabakh state minister Ruben Vardanyan. It has already had success defeating ruling party candidates in several municipal elections outside the capital.
Tandilyan says an opposition victory in Yerevan can trigger a movement that will ultimately result in a change of government at the national level.
The minor parties contesting the elections include several that are friendly with the ruling elite, such as Bright Armenia and Republic parties. Bright Armenia is led by Armenia’s Ambassador-at-large Edmon Marukyan, and the Republic party’s list is topped by former Justice Minister Artak Zeynalyan.
Ani Avetisyan is a journalist based in Armenia