Yerevan Elections: EXPLAINER

Armenia’s economy doing better than expected, World Bank says

By Mark Dovich

Yerevan residents will head to the polls next month for city council elections that are being seen as a crucial vote of confidence in Nikol Pashinyan — even though the prime minister himself will not be on the ballot. Here’s what you need to know.

How do the elections work?

On September 17, Yerevan’s more than 800,000 registered voters will go to the polls for the first time in five years to elect a new city council, which, in turn, will select the capital’s next mayor. Voters do not directly choose the mayor.

In simple terms, voters put their preferred political party on the ballot, with council seats distributed proportionally with parties’ vote shares. After the votes are tallied and the new city government convened, councilors select a new mayor from among themselves.

In effect, the set-up means one political party needs to receive the outright majority of votes in order to guarantee the leader of that party will become mayor. In the case no one party is able to secure the majority of votes, councilors must cobble together a governing coalition to choose a mayor.

Campaigning formally kicked off in Yerevan on Wednesday and will run until September 15. Armenian law requires a 24-hour blackout on campaigning and media coverage before voting day.

What are Yerevan residents saying?

CivilNet’s team visited a number of neighborhoods across Yerevan earlier this month to ask residents what they think of as the city’s most pressing issues.

Traffic congestion, air pollution, inefficient waste management, frequent utility cuts, and the lack of green spaces were among the most frequent responses given.

Who’s in the running?

Overall, 14 parties have put their hats in the ring. Only two of them are headed by women.

Leading mayoral candidates include acting Mayor Tigran Avinyan from Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party and Hayk Marutyan, a popular comedic actor who served as mayor from 2018 to 2021, when he was ousted from his post after reportedly falling out with Pashinyan.

Marutyan is running with National Progress, a minor political party that currently has no seats on Yerevan’s 65-member city council.

Other contenders include Mane Tandilyan from Country for Living, an upstart party linked to billionaire businessman Ruben Vardanyan, who served for a short time last year as Nagorno-Karabakh’s state minister, a post akin to prime minister.

None of Armenia’s main opposition groups are taking part in the elections.

A critical vote

At the most basic level, the upcoming elections are significant because Yerevan has had no mayor for nearly half a year.

The most recent city leader, Hrachya Sargsyan, stepped down in March after less than two years in office, leaving Avinyan, whose official title is deputy mayor, to run the city day-to-day. Sargsyan, a fellow Civil Contract member, is believed to have resigned to boost Avinyan’s chances in the run-up to the vote.

More broadly, it will be the first time such a large number of Armenians will have the chance to make their voices heard at the ballot box since the country’s parliamentary elections in June 2021. Pashinyan’s party scored a landslide victory in that contest, which pitted the prime minister against former President Robert Kocharyan, who remains a highly divisive figure in Armenia.

Observers expect next month’s vote to be indicative of Yerevan’s attitude toward Pashinyan, who has come under sustained and widespread criticism for his perceived mishandling of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and ongoing negotiations with Azerbaijan.

“The Yerevan election will be an important test of confidence for Pashinyan, who claims to have the people’s full mandate to solve the Artsakh problem at any cost,” CivilNet Editor-in-Chief Karen Harutyunyan wrote in an op-ed last month. “This will also be a test for Armenia’s fledgling democracy.”

“The mayoral elections won’t be just about Yerevan; they will shape the future trajectory of the entire country,” regional analyst Tigran Grigoryan wrote earlier this month on X, formerly known as Twitter.

What’s the context?

Despite Civil Contract’s nationwide victory in 2021, the years since have seen Pashinyan’s party lose a string of highly competitive local elections, including in Armenia’s second- and third-biggest cities.

In a number of those municipalities, Civil Contract has appeared to obstruct or undermine the democratic process after the elections produced results favoring its electoral opponents.

In the city of Vanadzor, for instance, former Mayor Mamikon Aslanyan was arrested on charges of abuse of power and fraud less than two weeks after leading his party to victory over Civil Contract in local elections in December 2021. Aslanyan, who remains in detention, has strongly rejected the allegations.

For several months following Aslanyan’s detention, a court blocked Vanadzor’s city council from meeting, in effect putting all municipal business on hold. Then last May, Pashinyan appointed an acting mayor for Armenia’s third-biggest city after parliament gave him the power to select mayors “in cases of force majeure.”

In the nearby mining town of Alaverdi, Mayor Arkadi Tamazyan, whose Country for Living party eked out a slim victory over Civil Contract last September by uniting with a minor opposition group, has repeatedly accused Civil Contract councilors of undermining him by boycotting key votes.

“They tried to flip council members from our political faction. We’re not able to collaborate with them. They’re trying to hinder the development of the community at any cost,” Tamazyan told CivilNet’s Lori region correspondent earlier this month.

In June, the Civil Contract governor of Lori, where the town is located, launched a scheduled audit into finances at Alaverdi town hall well ahead of schedule, a move Tamazyan decried as politically motivated.

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