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21 August 2023

Power Play in Yerevan: Former Mayor Challenges Pashinyan’s Candidate

Although PM Pashinyan’s favoured candidate is still expected to win Yerevan’s mayoral election on 17 September, the return of former mayor and Pashinyan critic Hayk Marutyan to the race could prove decisive in determining the country’s future.

Power Play in Yerevan: Former Mayor Challenges Pashinyan’s Candidate

Image: frantic00/Shutterstock

Next month, on 17 September, Yerevan will cast its vote in municipal elections that could prove decisive in determining the country’s future. Despite a significant decline in popularity since Armenia’s defeat in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s favoured candidate, Deputy Mayor Tigran Avinyan, is nonetheless still considered the favourite to win.

Last week, however, the political landscape took an intriguing turn with the return of Hayk Marutyan, Yerevan’s former mayor elected in a landslide on the back of Pashinyan’s 2018 rise to power, to the political scene. An actor and comedian, Marutyan sometimes draws comparisons to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, also a former showman.

Though the position of mayor might not sound so influential, in the context of small countries such as Armenia, its relevance is more than many outsiders might assume. With around 35 percent of the population resident in the capital, an elected head of the country’s economic, political, educational, and cultural centre has a significance that should not be underestimated. 

Indeed, successive governments resisted calls to make the position electable only until constitutional amendments were passed in a referendum in 2005 as part of obligations to the Council of Europe to reform local governance. A directly elected mayor opposed to the country’s leadership could pose a considerable threat, they feared, so even the amendments were watered down. 

Rather than allow voters to directly elect the mayor, they would instead go to the polls to choose a 65-seat city council that would then select the mayor. Moreover, fearful of a hung council, a clause was inserted that allowed a party with over 40 percent of the vote to have their candidate automatically selected to head the city.

Even so, opposition parties still realized the position had the potential to counter the power of the government, and in the first municipal elections held in 2009, former president Levon Ter-Petrosyan ran for the post with his Armenian National Congress (ANC) a year after a bitterly disputed presidential election saw a state of emergency declared and 10 dead in the following protests. 

Likewise, in 2017, just a year before the Velvet Revolution” that brought him to power, Nikol Pashinyan also contested the vote, but as Ter-Petrosyan before him, could not counter the administrative resources, falsification, and vote bribes that then defined Armenian elections, both locally and nationally. It is already clear that Pashinyan views the coming vote no less seriously. 

Once a Pashinyan loyalist, Marutyan swept to victory in the post-revolution September 2018 municipal election with over 81 percent of the vote. However, after Armenia’s defeat in the 2020 war, he became increasingly critical of the prime minister. As a result, in December 2021, the city council removed him in a vote of no-confidence engineered by Pashinyan.

Another Pashinyan loyalist, Hrachya Sargsyan, was appointed to the post until his surprise resignation in May. No replacement was selected by the city council in what many commentators believed was a move to ensure Avinyan’s advantage over any competition in next month’s vote.

Avinyan, a former deputy prime minister, was appointed deputy mayor in September last year, the same month that criminal charges were brought against Marutyan in what many believe was an attempt to squash his post-mayoral political ambitions. With the parliamentary opposition led by former presidents Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan lacking popular support, Marutyan is seen as a greater threat.

Indeed, according to the latest surveys, 67 percent of respondents said that they do not trust Nikol Pashinyan, and many believe that it had only been widespread dislike of Kocharyan and Sargsyan that saw the prime minister retain his position in the June 2021 parliamentary elections and ride out street protests against a concessionary deal with Azerbaijan organized by Kocharyan allies last year. 

In that context, the September 2023 elections could thus become as much of a vote on the country’s future as the capital itself. Marutyan already accuses Pashinyan and Civil Contract of ‘privat[izing] the revolution’ and seeking to take absolute control of the country. Indeed, the Chairman of the Armenian Central Election Commission (CEC), Vahagn Hovakimyan, is another Pashinyan-loyalist. 

Local watchdogs such as Transparency International Armenia have already accused Avinyan of using administrative resources that the CEC has ignored.

Earlier this month, the Union of Informed Citizens (UIC) also published a report alleging that lists of registered Yerevan voters hailing from the regions of Armenia were being compiled. “Officials explain to such voters “just how bad things will be for them” if Civil Contract loses the polls,” reported Radio Free Europe. 

However, given the current political climate, it remains unclear whether Marutyan can challenge Avinyan. According to another poll conducted before Marutyan announced his candidacy on 5 August, only 9.3 percent of respondents said they would vote for Civil Contract’s Avinyan, while only 3.7 percent said they would for the former comedian. 

Some 55 percent of respondents also said that they did not believe that the vote would be free and fair. Over 19 percent said they would not vote, and 33.4 percent were undecided, leaving the campaign period itself, due to run from 23 August to 15 September, a crucial period for the candidates to mobilize support. In total, 13 parties and 1 electoral bloc will contest the vote

Tellingly, however, the parliamentary opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutyun and Republican Party will not be contesting the elections. However, one non-party member of Kocharyan’s Hayastan faction will campaign on a platform opposing a peace deal with Azerbaijan rather than on local issues. The Prosperous Armenia party will also not participate. 

The party says that given the Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations, engaging in ‘real debate and discussion’ about local issues will be impossible. However, if that proves correct, next month’s Yerevan elections could prove the first test of Pashinyan’s stated ‘peace agenda’ since the 2020 war. During the 2021 parliamentary vote, Pashinyan had instead promised to pursue the ‘formula of remedial secession.’ 

Whether attempts to turn the council elections into a post-2020 vote of confidence in Pashinyan remains to be seen, but whatever the result, the elections will likely be viewed by some observers as a referendum not only on the prime minister but also on a speculated peace deal that could be signed by the end of the year. Its conduct might also prove the first real test of Armenia’s democratic credentials.