Voters at a polling station in Masis, December 5, 2021

Armenia Ruling Party Suffers More Local Election Setbacks

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By Nane Sahakian and Karine Simonian

YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s party was defeated in Armenia’s third largest city of Vanadzor and several other major urban communities in local elections held on Sunday, December 6.

The Civil Contract party suffered similar setbacks in other parts of the country in October and November. It failed to install its members as mayors of the second largest city of Gyumri and the three main communities of southeastern Syunik province.

The latest polls were held in 36 other communities that were mostly enlarged by the Armenian authorities earlier this year. Voters there elected, on a party-list basis, new local councils empowered to choose community heads.

Citing preliminary vote results, Civil Contract claimed on Sunday night to have prevailed in 25 of those communities.

Opposition representatives disputed that claim on Monday. Some of them insisted that the ruling party won outright only in 15 municipalities, most of which comprise a city or town and multiple villages. They said that in all other communities Civil Contract fell short of a majority of seats in the local councils.

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In what was arguably its biggest setback, Civil Contract won only 25 percent of the vote in Vanadzor, compared with about 39 percent polled by a local bloc led by Mamikon Aslanyan, who served as the mayor until October.

Aslanyan was affiliated with the then President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) when the former Vanadzor council elected him mayor in 2016. He sought reelection not as a candidate of the HHK but as the leader of the bloc bearing his name.

Aslanyan needs to cut a power-sharing deal with other election contenders in order to again become mayor. He did not indicate as of Monday afternoon whether he would try to team up with Civil Contract or another party that finished third with 14.5 percent of the vote. The party is led by Arkadi Peleshyan, his former deputy.

During the election campaign Aslanyan and Civil Contract’s mayoral candidate, Aram Khachatryan, harshly criticized each other and ruled out the possibility of a post-election alliance. Khachatryan is also the governor of the northern Lori province, of which Vanadzor is the administrative center.

Pashinyan’s party was also defeated in Abovyan, 15 kilometers north of Yerevan, long a political stronghold of Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) leader Gagik Tsarukyan.

The BHK was led in the local mayoral race by Eduard Babayan, Tsarukyan’s former chief bodyguard, and won more than 45 percent of the vote. An alliance with the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), which garnered over 5 percent, would be enough to make Babayan the new mayor of Abovyan and nearby villages. Civil Contract got about 37 percent of the vote in the community.

Other municipalities won by opposition or nominally independent candidates included the capitals of Gegharkunik and Vayots Dzor provinces as well as the towns of Masis and Aparan.

By contrast, Civil Contract scored victories in three other provincial capitals and other major such as Echmiadzin, Spitak and Jermuk.

Pashinyan sought to put a brave face on his party’s electoral performance, saying that the latest elections were free and fair and that this is more important than their results. He also said that his administration’s top priorities are currently “connected with external challenges” facing Armenia.

“I know and understand the view that it would have been better for us to have rigged elections but a higher degree of [national] security,” the prime minister wrote on Facebook. “But I remain convinced that it is the long-running practice of vote rigging that eroded the system of state resilience formed in the 1990s and… led to security disasters.”

While there have been virtually no allegations of serious and systematic fraud in the latest polls, Armenian opposition forces have for weeks accused Pashinyan’s political team of abusing its government levers and bullying challengers to try to gain control of more local governments. The authorities deny the accusations.

Critics have also noted the abundance of former political allies of Armenia’s previous leadership among Civil Contract’s election candidates. They defected from the former ruling HHK after Pashinyan swept to power in 2018.

A Civil Contract spokesman dismissed late last week suggestions that the strong presence of such individuals on the party’s electoral slates is at odds with Pashinyan’s extremely negative characterizations of the country former rulers.

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