YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Campaigning has officially begun for the first mayoral elections in Yerevan in nearly two decades. Residents of the Armenian capital will go to the polls on May 31 to elect a municipal assembly empowered to choose the city’s next mayors.
Yerevan’s municipal assembly has been appointed by the president of the republic ever since Armenia adopted its post-Soviet constitution in 1995. One of the amendments to that constitution enacted in late 2005 allowed indirect elections of Yerevan mayors by universal suffrage. President Serzh Sarkisian and his predecessor Robert Kocharian controversially delayed the conduct of those polls.
Under a relevant law adopted by parliament late last year, all 65 seats in the municipal Council of Elders will be up for grabs under the system of proportional representation. The law stipulates that parties and blocs need to win at least 7 and 9 percent of the vote respectively in order to be represented in the assembly. The party or bloc getting more than 40 percent of the vote would be able to single-handedly appoint the next mayor
The election campaign got underway on Saturday after the Central Election Commission (CEC) formally registered six parties and one alliance for the polls. Those include the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.
The ARF, a major election contender, held its first campaign rally at Yerevan’s largest cinema on Monday, one week after it pulled out of the ruling coalition in protest against Sarkisian’s conciliatory policy on Turkey.
The ARF’s top candidate, Artsvik Minasian, pledged, among other things, to end serious restrictions on gatherings and demonstrations in Yerevan that were put in place following Armenia’s February 2008 presidential election.“We would make every effort to ensure that those restrictions are not undue and ludicrous,” said Minasian.
Speaking at the campaign kickoff on Monday, Armen Rustamian, the chairman of the ARF Supreme Body of Armenia, stressed the need for a healthy and democratic election environment that does not use the municipal pole as a means to force regime change.
“We must realize that it is wrong to say that by winning [control over] the municipality we can create a state within a state and that the next step, regime change, will not be long in coming: the president of the republic will resign and these authorities will go,” said Armen Rustamian, the chairman of the ARF’s supreme body in Armenia.
The message was clearly addressed to the main opposition Armenian National Congress that has pledged to turn the municipal polls into a “second round” of the disputed presidential election and use its possible victory for toppling Sarkisian. The opposition group rallied thousands of supporters in downtown Yerevan on Friday.
Its top leader, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, described proper conduct of the May 31 vote as Sarkisian’s “last chance to gain some authority with Armenian society and the international community.” Ter-Petrosian did not say, though, what his 18-party alliance will do if it considers the vote to have been fraudulent.
Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia was scheduled to hold its first campaign event late on Monday. The ruling party’s list of candidates is headed by the incumbent Mayor Gagik Beglarian, controversially appointed to the post by the President only a few months ahead of the polls.
The Republican Party has already been facing opposition allegations that the Yerevan municipality is pressuring public sector employees to pledge to vote for the Beglarian-led list.
The Republican Party’s two junior partners in the governing coalition kicked off their own campaigns on Saturday with indoor presentations of their platforms. “We mean business,” Gagik Tsarukian, the leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party, told hundreds of supporters, summing up the party’s main message to Yerevan voters.
The Prosperous Armenia electoral list is topped by Health Minister Harutiun Kushkian. “I am a Yerevantsi and know Yerevantsis’ concerns well,” he said during the presentation.
The other coalition party, Orinats Yerkir, also claimed to be aiming for victory in the upcoming polls. “Orinats Yerkir is participating in these elections with a resolve to win,” its leader, Artur Baghdasarian, said as he outlined its campaign manifesto.
The party’s mayoral candidate, Heghine Bisharian, said “kindness” will be the main feature of her campaign speeches. “But if there are people who will say wicked things, especially about us, we will definitely respond,” she told RFE/RL.