Marianna Grigoryan

June 1, 2009

Armenians appear headed for another round of election-related acrimony
following a contentious Yerevan Council Election on May 31. As in
recent national elections, official results favored the governing
Republican Party of Armenia by a wide margin. Opposition supporters
complained bitterly about irregularities, but, as in the past,
international observers offered only cautious criticism.

The vote marked the first time a Yerevan mayor was determined
on the basis of the City Council election results, rather than
by presidential appointment. With that significance in mind, media
presented the election as a second chance for the political comeback of
ex-President Levon Ter-Petrosian, the lead candidate for the Armenian
National Congress (ANC), after his defeat in the 2008 presidential
elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

But, based on preliminary official results, Ter-Petrosian's comeback
stalled almost as soon as it began. The Republican Party secured
more than 46 percent of the ballots cast, easily enough to ensure
that its top council candidate -- incumbent mayor Gagik Beglarian --
would retain his post.

Government coalition member Prosperous Armenia, a deep-pocketed
contender headed by oligarch Gagik Tsarukian, garnered roughly 22
percent of the vote, while the opposition Armenian National Congress,
headed by former president Ter-Petrosian, finished a distant third,
with some 17 percent of the vote.

The Rule of Law Party, a government coalition member, and the
nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation failed to make the cut
for seats in the 65-member city council. Turnout was placed at 52.85
percent of Yerevan's 771,477 eligible voters.

To protest the results, Ter-Petrosian announced a rally in central
Yerevan for the evening of June 1. The former Armenian president
declined to field reporters' questions on election day, however,
and has not released a statement. In a May 31 press conference,
senior ANC member Levon Zurabian charged that the government would
focus on falsifying the vote count.

It would seem that even some government agencies see the possibility
of wrongdoing. According to a report distributed by the Interfax
news agency, the Armenian Prosecutor General's Office has called
for a recount in eight voting precincts. Prosecutor General Agvan
Hovsepyan indicated that his office may open a criminal investigation.

Even so, in an apparent warning to Ter-Petrosian supporters, Prime
Minister Tigran Sarkisian underlined the need for Armenian politicians
to learn how to "have the courage to accept defeat gracefully."

"These are . . . partly mayoral elections," commented independent
political analyst Yervand Bozoian. "It's a [national] political
struggle, in fact."

And like the 2008 presidential elections, it was a struggle that
occurred amid accusations of electoral skulduggery.

The opposition Heritage Party's representative to the Central Election
Commission refused to sign the final vote protocol as a result of what
she termed "large-scale election fraud." "Signing the document would
mean concluding a bargain with the authorities," Zoya. Tadevosian said, news site reported.

Attacks against journalists headlined the list of complaints. At
least five such cases were reported by the end of voting on May
31. Ballot-box stuffing, transportation of out-of-town voters to
Yerevan, polling-station scuffles, vote buying, and the expulsion of
observers from polling stations were among other reported abuses.

Gohar Vezirian, a reporter for the pro-opposition Chorrord Ishkhanutiun
newspaper, told EurasiaNet that she was beaten and verbally abused
by supporters of Mayor Beglarian after complaining to one polling
station commission chairman about the "intrusion" of a Republican
Party MP and "three dozen supporters." She declined, however, to file
a police report.

Representatives of Transparency International and the Helsinki Human
Rights Assembly of Armenia both declared the conduct of the vote

Helsinki Assembly observer Artur Sakunts, who monitored the voting
in polling station No. 9 in Yerevan's Malatia-Sebastia District,
asserted that vote falsification surpassed levels for any election
he had observed in the past decade. "Cases of [ballot box] stuffing
have been witnessed everywhere. They bring people by cars . . . they
tried to find reasons to have us leave the station several times to
try to make falsifications," Sakunts claimed.

Central Election Commission representatives were not immediately
available to respond to the specific observer allegations. One hour
after polling stations closed on May 31, however, CEC Chairman Garegin
Azarian claimed that most of the violation reports "did not correspond
with reality."

"We have gotten alarmed calls as well, but not all of them are
confirmed," Azarian stated on Armenian Public Television.

Some 5,635 local observers and the Council of Europe's Congress of
Regional and Local Authorities monitored the vote. At a June 1 news
conference, the 15 Council of Europe observers noted the occurrence
of "some shortcomings." But the observers added that the vote was
"largely conducted in compliance with European standards."

Voter reactions ran the gamut. Arevhat Mkrtchian, an 80-something
voter in Malatia-Sebastia district, affirmed that Armenians need
"to believe in the country's rulers." Hairdresser Inessa Gharibian,
however, weary of opposition-government jousting, said that she had
decided not to vote. "The outcome of elections in this country is
pre-determined," she said.

Republican Party spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov took a pragmatic
view, echoing official statements that the vote is "a step forward
on the road to democracy."

"We need to realize there can't be ideal elections in a country that
gained independence only 18 years ago," Sharmazanov said.