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Yerevan Election Compounds Political Polarization In Armenia

Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian condemned the election as "the dirtiest in Armenia's history."

Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian condemned the election as "the dirtiest in Armenia's history."

Perhaps inevitably, the May 31 Yerevan municipal-council elections have resulted in an even greater degree of political polarization than before. In a scenario that recalls last year's disputed presidential poll, the most prominent opposition faction contesting the ballot, former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress (HAK), condemned the election as "the dirtiest in Armenia's history."

Both the HAK and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), which quit the ruling coalition in April, rejected the official results as rigged; the HAK announced that it will not participate in the council's activities. But it remains unclear whether those two parties will align against the regime.

The election was the first in which voters effectively determined who would become Yerevan mayor. The 65 seats on the municipal council were distributed among the participating parties according to the proportion of the vote they received, with the post of mayor going automatically to the first person on the list of the party that polls 50 percent plus one vote. In the event that no party does so, the council members elect the mayor at its inaugural session. Ter-Petrossian headed the HAK list.

According to the preliminary official results as announced on June 1, President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) garnered 46.6 percent of the vote, followed by its coalition partner Prosperous Armenia with 22.3 percent, and Ter-Petrossian's HAK with 17.1 percent. The remaining parties, including junior coalition partner Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) and the HHD, failed to poll the minimum 7 percent of the vote required for representation. Voter turnout was 53 percent, compared with 69 percent in the February 2008 presidential ballot.

Ter-Petrossian told some 10,000 supporters at a rally in Yerevan on June 1 that the HAK will not take up the 13 mandates it won, but will permanently boycott the city council and will never engage in dialogue with the authorities. He charged that between 100,000 and 150,000 Yerevan residents "sold" their votes to the HHK.

On June 2, the HHD, which did not win a single seat on the council, expressed support of the planned HAK boycott. But as of June 4, the HHD had not responded to an invitation extended by the HAK the previous day to "all healthy political forces" to unite and fight against what it termed "a criminal and totalitarian state system with a democratic facade."

On June 2, the HAK issued a statement enumerating the nature and extent of the illegal measures it claimed the authorities undertook to falsify the election outcome, including multiple voting, vote-buying, ballot-box stuffing, refusal to register complaints of malpractice, and intimidation of voters.

The independent local monitoring group It's Your Choice, which deployed observers in all of the city's 439 polling stations, similarly listed in its preliminary report concrete instances of ballot stuffing, multiple and illegal voting, voter intimidation, presence of unauthorized personnel at polling stations, and other procedural violations. It also deplored pre-election violence, reports of widespread vote buying, pro-government parties' reliance on "administrative resources," and their tight control of election commissions.

The Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office initially rejected as "fabrications" media reports of widespread procedural violations. But on June 3, its press service said it had acquired evidence of forged voting papers surfacing at one polling station.

On June 4, the Central Election Commission invalidated the results of the vote at three polling stations in the Malatia-Sebastia district, where the largest number of irregularities were reported, and asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to open a criminal investigation.

The HAK released a statement the same day accusing the authorities of "covering up" hundreds of election-day violations registered by opposition proxies. It said that in violation of the Electoral Code, virtually all district election commissions in Yerevan are refusing to provide copies of precinct-level voting data and other documents to the opposition bloc. It also accused the authorities of blocking vote recounts in more polling stations.

Given the scale of the reported violations, and the comparatively low voter turnout, it is difficult to predict whether in fact the HAK would have scored a victory if the vote had indeed been free and fair, and individual voters had been confident that casting their ballot was not a wasted exercise.

The pro-government daily "Hayots ashkharh" pointed out on June 2 that Ter-Petrossian as mayoral candidate won only some 70,000 votes, compared with 150,000 in the February 2008 presidential ballot. It suggested that voting irregularities and lower turnout alone cannot account for that apparent precipitous decline in his popularity.

The HAK will convene a rally of its supporters in Yerevan on June 12, at which Ter-Petrossian will outline his next steps. He made clear on June 1 that he will not immediately launch mass protests against the falsification of the vote, as he did in February last year. Those protests culminated after 10 days in violent clashes with police and security forces in which 10 people were killed.

"Until we have seriously analyzed the situation...and our chances and those of the authorities, we shall not lead the people to any adventure. Forget about that," Ter-Petrossian told the June 1 rally. At the same time, he urged supporters not to give way to "defeatist" sentiments.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.