In Yerevan’s Mayoral Election, Coming In First Won’t Be Enough

The common saying is that “All politics is local,” but that will be put to the test in the coming Yerevan municipal election on September 17, 2023. While city councils are typically primarily concerned with on-the-ground issues like building permits, public transportation, and garbage collection, several opposition candidates are channeling the post-war zeitgeist in which national security is the top issue on Armenians’ minds.

A February 2023 poll by the International Republic Institute (IRI) found that 55% of Yerevan residents believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, a record high since IRI started polling in 2018, and up from 43% in June 2022. They overwhelmingly identified national security as the main problem Armenia is facing, though the top three issues they felt the next mayor of Yerevan should address were transportation, garbage collection and greenspace.

With attitudes toward the national government at their nadir, several opposition candidates in the Yerevan mayor’s race have openly called on their supporters to turn the electoral contest into a referendum on the national government’s performance. It wouldn’t be the first time. The last Yerevan municipal election in 2018 was also a litmus test on public support for Nikol Pashinyan in the Prime Minister’s Office, just months after he replaced Serzh Sargsyan.

While 2018 delivered an 81% majority to the Civil Contract Party, the results this time will not be so one-sided. The proportional representation model used in Armenia for both national and municipal (in cities with over 4000 voters) elections means that a prospective mayoral candidate will need to have the support of a majority of the new city council. In effect, a political party would need to receive more than 50% of the votes cast in order to have a clear mandate. If no party makes it to that point, then negotiations begin among the parties that pass the minimum 4% threshold (or 6% for alliances of multiple parties). Thus, if a political party gets the most votes but represents only, say, 40% of the vote total, there is an opportunity for the other parties to enter a post-election coalition that leaves out the front runner, choosing a new mayor from among their own ranks.

If the assumptions that the national government is less popular than a year ago, and that national issues will overshadow local ones, are taken at face value, recent election results from Yerevan precincts suggest that no single party is likely to receive an outright majority.

The Back Story

Before introducing the current candidates, it is useful to provide some background.

Prior to 2009, the Mayor of Yerevan was an appointed position, similar to Armenia’s regional governors. It so happens that the current President of Armenia, Vahagn Khachaturyan, was one of those appointees, from 1992 to 1996, under Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s administration. Making up roughly a third of Armenia’s population, Yerevan was seen as too important of a constituency to allow a public campaign; anyone elected to the position could have a figurative megaphone loud enough to challenge the country’s leadership.

Since the rules were changed for the 2009 election, Yerevan’s city council is elected under a closed-list proportional representation electoral system where voters cast their ballot for a political party instead of an individual candidate. Parties receive a number of positions on the city council (literally translated from Armenian as “Council of Elders”) in proportion to the vote share that they receive. For example, if one party receives 12% of the votes, they would likely receive eight of the 65 seats on the new council; the top eight names on their ordered list of candidates will be elected. Vacancies that may arise in the middle of the term are filled by the next person on the party’s list.

The first Mayor of Yerevan elected under this system was Gagik Beglaryan, of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA). He resigned a year and a half into his four year term, however, after an incident in which he physically beat an Office of the President employee who had asked his wife to change her seat during a Placido Domingo opera performance.

Beglaryan was replaced by Karen Karapetyan, who was generally more popular. However, Karapetyan did not complete the term, either. One of Karapetyan’s policies was to ban unlicensed street vendors who used to sell fruits, sunflower seeds, and knick knacks to pedestrians on the sidewalk. Those whose livelihoods were impacted by the policy change began protests, which grew in scope when the parliamentary opposition joined in. Karapetyan resigned as Mayor in October 2011, before completing a full year in office, though he would later go on to serve as Prime Minister.

Karapetyan was replaced by Taron Margaryan, the son of Andranik Margaryan, who had preceded Serzh Sargsyan as Prime Minister and Leader of the RPA. Taron Margaryan maintained an RPA majority on Yerevan city council through the 2013 and 2017 elections. The four years between these two elections would turn out to be the only time an elected Mayor of Yerevan served a full term. In the 2017 match up, which followed a mere six weeks after the parliamentary election that same spring, then-MP Nikol Pashinyan headed the Way Out Alliance ticket, which became the main opposition to the RPA, coming in second.

It was a year later, in May 2018, that Pashinyan would come to power as Prime Minister. Margaryan was implicated in a corruption scandal and resigned as Mayor of Yerevan in July 2018. The RPA majority on city council at the time had the power to choose a new mayor without requiring a new election. In the context of the protests targeting their political party that had swept the nation only a few months earlier, however, they opted not to fill the seat. According to the Electoral Code, after two sessions in which a replacement was not named, a snap election was called for September 2018.

The resulting contest that took place on September 23, 2018, was the first electoral test following what came to be called the “Velvet Revolution”. At the time, the Way Out Alliance in the National Assembly consisted of three political parties. In the order they appeared on the 2017 election ticket, they were Edmon Marukyan and his Bright Armenia Party (BAP), Aram Sargsyan and his Republic Party (RP, a separate party from the RPA), and Nikol Pashinyan and his Civil Contract Party (CCP). For the September 2018 Yerevan city council election, the Way Out Alliance broke up. The CCP teamed up with the upstart Mission Party to form the “My Step Alliance”, while the BAP and RP remained united under the “Bright Alliance” banner. As a side note, it is worth mentioning that, during the 2017 parliamentary election, the Mission Party had joined with Gagik Tsarukyan’s Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP) to form the Tsarukyan Alliance.

In 2018, the My Step Alliance ticket for the Yerevan election was headed by actor and comedian Hayk Marutyan, who had taken part in civic activities before. Notably, he had attracted publicity for giving rides to commuters during the 2013 public transportation boycott that was successful in canceling a planned 50% fare hike. With Marutyan as their mayoral candidate, the My Step Alliance won in a landslide, taking 81% of the vote. The Bright Alliance came in third, with 5%. The RPA did not participate in the 2018 Yerevan city council election.

The decisive win was a major factor in the rush to call a snap parliamentary election for December 2018. It had previously been expected that the new national-level election would take place in the spring of 2019 to give time to implement changes to the Electoral Code.

Despite the strong mandate, Marutyan would not serve a full term either. His ties to the CCP grew increasingly strained to the point that he resigned his party membership, though he did not immediately make it public. Following the 2020 Artsakh War and the ensuing parliamentary election in June 2021, Marutyan did not publicly show support for Nikol Pashinyan and the Civil Contract Party. In December 2021, Pashinyan called the My Step caucus on city council to the CCP party office for a two-hour meeting, in which he convinced them to boot Marutyan from the mayor’s office through a vote of no confidence. While the move was not unanimous (a few My Step city councilors chose to resign their seats instead), it was successful. Hrachya Sargsyan took over as the new mayor. He was the Deputy Mayor at the time and had been ranked #10 on the 2018 list of candidates for the My Step Alliance, in which he was identified as a member of the Mission Party.

Hrachya Sargsyan lasted 15 months before he announced his own resignation. With no reasonable official explanation ever given as to why he did not serve out the remainder of the term, the information vacuum has been filled with unconfirmed rumors. The commonly-accepted narrative is that he wanted to remain the top dog at city hall and lead the Civil Contract ticket in the next municipal election. However, it had already been announced that Tigran Avinyan, former Deputy Prime Minister, would be the party’s next mayoral candidate. Others have also pointed to a Facebook post by Mission Party co-founder Mesrob Arakelyan that insinuated the embezzlement of public funds during the procurement of Chinese-manufactured buses by the Yerevan Municipality. Sargsyan resigned the day after that Facebook post.

Representative of fraying democratic norms, the normal process to replace Hrachya Sargsyan was circumvented. The Electoral Code requires that a special session of city council be called within one month to fill the vacancy. After Sargsyan resigned on March 17, 2023, a special session was called for April 11. However, when the day came, none of the city councilors except for Deputy Mayor Levon Hovhannisyan, who was already serving as the interim Acting Mayor showed up. Without a quorum, Hovhannisyan announced that the session was not in order and adjourned. Since that date, city council has continued to meet for regular sessions but never again placed the item of electing a new mayor on the agenda. Hovhannisyan has continued as interim Acting Mayor, while it is generally understood that Tigran Avinyan is really in charge. Note that city council cannot officially appoint Avinyan as the new mayor as he was not on the list of candidates in 2018.

The Current Candidates

On September 17, 2023, registered Yerevan residents, including non-citizens, will have 14 options to choose from.

The Civil Contract Party (CCP) is led by Nikol Pashinyan. It nominated Tigran Avinyan as its mayoral candidate for the 2023 Yerevan election more than a year in advance. Avinyan had served as Deputy Prime Minister until the June 2021 parliamentary election. As mentioned above, although Levon Hovhannisyan is currently the acting mayor, Avinyan, who is now one of four deputy mayors (since September 2022), is viewed as the incumbent. Avinyan also heads the Armenian National Interests Fund (ANIF) and chairs the Board of Trustees of the National Polytechnic [Engineering] University of Armenia. In an initial election observation report released by Transparency International office in Armenia on August 23, 2023, campaign observers expressed concern about the unequal playing field resulting from the Civil Contract Party’s access to administrative resources.

While Avinyan and his party are polling in first place, the ultimate test for them will be whether they can secure a majority on the new 65-seat Yerevan city council, and if not, whether they can find a junior partner that will enter a coalition with them.

The National Progress Party (NPP) was founded in 2018 and has only participated in the December 2018 parliamentary election, coming in last place. A year before the election, the party had nominated Hayk Grigoryan, a repatriate lawyer from California as its mayoral candidate. However, shortly before the campaign officially got underway, Hayk Marutyan made an announcement that he would re-enter the political field and lead this party’s ticket, while Grigoryan will take the second spot on the candidate list. As mentioned earlier, Marutyan was elected mayor in 2018, heading the My Step Alliance ticket that was dominated by the Civil Contract Party, giving him significant name recognition. An actor, he also put on a comedy show over the last year reflecting on his time as mayor. The main question that remains to be answered is whether Marutyan would prefer a coalition that includes or excludes the Civil Contract Party. He is aiming to carry the flag for those voters who supported the change in government in 2018 but have become disaffected with the Civil Contract Party since then.

The Country to Live Party is one of the few parties to have fielded candidates in cities outside Yerevan since amendments to the Electoral Code brought the proportional representation model to most municipal elections in Armenia. It is co-led by Mane Tandilyan (formerly of the Bright Armenia Party) and Mesrop Arakelyan (from the Mission Party, the junior partner of the My Step Alliance), who both previously served as Minister of Labor and Social Affairs in Pashinyan’s cabinets. Tandilyan is the party’s mayoral candidate in this campaign and one of only two women candidates in the field of 14. She is a former MP, who resigned her seat to become the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs in Artsakh, before returning to the Republic of Armenia to create this new party. In the context of the ongoing blockade of Artsakh, they have called on Yerevan voters to use this municipal election to send a message to the national government, seeing a loss in Yerevan for the Civil Contract Party as a major stepping stone in replacing them at the national level. For this reason, they are less likely to join a coalition with Avinyan than the NPP.

The Mother Armenia Alliance is the only alliance of multiple parties participating in this election. It consists of the Country of Apricots Party, which had won seats in the 2017 Yerevan municipal election, and the relatively new Intellectual Armenia Party. It is the main contender supported by the parliamentary opposition; its mayoral candidate, Andranik Tevanyan, is a nonpartisan MP in the Armenia Alliance caucus. As such, the ticket has been endorsed by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which is not participating in this election. Ranked second on the candidate list is Zaruhi Postanjyan, a well-known former city councilor. Manuk Sukiasyan of the Intellectual Armenia Party is ranked third. The candidate list includes one member, Adrine Avagyan, from the National Democratic Union (founded by Vazgen Manukyan). As a pre-election alliance of multiple parties, a higher electoral threshold applies. They will need to get 6% of the vote to get any seats on the city council, while the other parties are subject to only 4%.

The Bright Armenia Party had won three seats in the 2018 Yerevan municipal election. Its caucus was led by Davit Khazhakyan over the last five years. He is also the party’s mayoral candidate this time around. After a disappointing round of municipal results in other cities, including failing to meet the electoral threshold in their supposed stronghold of Vanadzor in 2021, these election results will be critical to the future credibility of the party. The leader and founder of the Bright Armenia Party, Edmon Marukyan, was appointed an ambassador-at-large by Pashinyan in 2022, and handed the file on Artsakh. This cooperation suggests the party would be open to a post-election coalition with the Civil Contract Party.

Similarly, the Republic Party is a former member of the Way Out Alliance, with Civil Contract. Artak Zeynalyan, a former Justice Minister under Pashinyan, led the Bright Alliance in the 2018 Yerevan municipal election, together with the Bright Armenia Party. He is once again a mayoral candidate, but this time on a single-party list.

Other parties have a lower public profile and will face a tougher challenge in getting their message out. The Public Voice Party is a new political entity, but its mayoral candidate Artak Galstyan participated in the June 2021 parliamentary election, leading the Armenians’ Homeland Party, which took a strong stance against Pashinyan after the defeat of the 2020 Artsakh War. The Public Voice Party is presenting a united ticket with Tigran Urikhanyan and his Alliance Progressive Centrist Party. Urikhanyan is a former MP that previously sat with the Prosperous Armenia caucus in parliament until February 2020, when he chose to sit as an independent. In the June 2021 parliamentary election, he headed the Our Home is Armenia Party.

Nelli Harutyunyan is the other female mayoral candidate, heading the Strength of Armenia Party. The party was founded by Tigran Arzakantsyan, a wealthy businessman who was originally going to put forward his wife, Natalya Rothenberg, of Russian ethnicity, as the mayoral candidate. However, Rothenberg’s difficulty with the Armenian language eventually led them to reconsider, after having attracted some media attention. In the June 2021 parliamentary election. Arzakantsyan had backed the Democratic Party of Armenia.

The European Party of Armenia (EPA) also tried to leverage some star power to attract attention. They announced that famous singer Ruben Hakhverdyan would be their mayoral candidate, before Hakhverdyan admitted the announcement was more about generating public discussion several months before the campaign began. They later announced that the mayoral candidate would be Karen Sargsyan and that they would participate in an alliance with the Social Democratic Hunchakian Party. However, in the end, party leader Tigran Khzmalyan topped the final candidate list, which consists entirely of EPA members and independents.

Other participants include Norik Norikyan of the Fair Armenia Party, Yervand Tarverdyan of the United Armenia Party, Viktor Mnatsakanyan of the new Victory Party, Arman Ghukasyan of the For Social Justice Party, and Suren Petrosyan of the Democratic Consolidation Party.

The rally for the Republic Party had previously announced that they would participate in the election, but failed to register. There was similar speculation about the Yerevan 2805 Movement and Levon Kocharyan, son of Robert Kocharyan. It is notable that the Republican Party of Armenia and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the two main parliamentary opposition parties, are not participating. Neither is the Prosperous Armenia Party, which came in second in 2018.

The Central Electoral Commission

Yerevan municipal elections are managed directly by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), a constitutional body of the Republic of Armenia. For many years, the CEC was chaired by Tigran Mukuchyan, who was first appointed by executive order by then-President Serzh Sargsyan in 2011. After the 2015 constitutional amendments, the CEC chair is chosen by Parliament as a whole, by secret ballot, through a three-fifths (60%) supermajority. Mukuchyan was reappointed by this process in 2016.

In October 2022, Mukuchyan’s second term came to an end and third terms are not permitted. In a very controversial move, the Civil Contract caucus in parliament chose Vahagn Hovakimyan, then a Civil Contract MP, to replace him, as early as the summer of 2022. Due to the nature of the role, it is typically desirable for the individuals in charge of elections to be non-partisan so that there is no perception of bias. In fact, CEC members are constitutionally prohibited from being a member of any political party, but the way the provisions are worded, it is technically possible to resign one’s party membership and be appointed the following day.

That is what happened with Hovakimyan. Hovakimyan’s personal relationship with Pashinyan goes back to his time as a reporter for The Armenian Times newspaper, which Pashinyan was the editor of, from 1999 to 2012. When Pashinyan was elected as an opposition MP, Hovakimyan went on to work in his office as a legislative assistant. Pashinyan and a group of other supporters founded the Civil Contract Party in 2015. Hovakimyan became a member of the party’s governing board in 2016. In 2017, he was employed by the Way Out caucus as a Policy Expert, before being elected as an MP with the My Step Alliance in the December 2018 parliamentary election. Meanwhile, Hovakimyan had been elected as a Yerevan city councilor with the My Step Alliance in the previous municipal election in September 2018 (before stepping down months later to take his seat as an MP). Five years later, he is in charge of running the election itself.

In order to be legally eligible to become the CEC chair, Vahagn Hovakimyan submitted his resignation as an MP on October 3, 2022. After an MP submits their resignation letter to the Speaker of Parliament, there is a one week countdown in which they have the right to rescind the resignation. Only after the end of those seven days does their resignation come into effect. The parliamentary session to elect a new CEC chair took place on October 7, 2022, after Hovakimyan had submitted his resignation but before it had come into effect. In Armenia’s 107-member National Assembly, the Civil Contract Party controls 71 of the 107 seats (66%); 65 votes in favor are required to meet the three-fifths supermajority. Opposition parties boycotted the vote, which is a secret ballot. Secret ballot votes in Armenia’s parliament are counted by the Counting Committee, which consists of nine MPs from all parties; five of them, a majority, are from the Civil Contract Party. The Counting Committee reported the results of the vote with exactly 65 votes in favor and none against, bare minimum required to pass. None of the opposition MPs were present. Conspicuously, the signature of the chair of the Counting Committee, MP Narek Babayan, is missing from the protocol certifying the results (his signature does appear on the other protocols, as the other members of the CEC were also elected during that sitting).

It was the fact that Hovakimyan participated in the vote himself that sparked a rebuke from a group of civil society organizations that have a long history of performing election observation missions in Armenia, who argued that the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly required him to recuse himself from the vote due to a conflict of interest. Also, it can be considered inappropriate for him to have participated in the vote after he had already submitted his resignation as an MP (but before it came into effect). Hovakimyan officially stopped being an MP after his resignation was accepted on October 11, 2022. Note that, without his own vote cast in his favor, his candidacy would not have passed.

In polling conducted by International Republican Institute (IRI) earlier in 2023, dissatisfaction with the CEC reached its highest point since the summer of 2018. The controversy clouding Hovakimyan’s appointment is likely a major contributor to the uptick.

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Magazine Issue N32

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