On March 23, the opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party announced that it will not participate independently in the May 31 elections for a new Yerevan city council.
At the same time, it called on the population of the capital "to vote for the opposition," meaning the parties aligned in former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress (HAK).
Speaking at a press conference on March 25, Vardan Khachatrian, a member of Zharangutiun's governing board, explained that after Zharangutiun failed to reach a consensus with the HAK on a joint list of candidates, Zharangutiun decided not to participate rather than risk splitting the opposition vote.
But on March 26, the daily "Aravot" predicted that while some Zharangutiun supporters will vote for the HAK, others will vote for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) as "the most opposition-minded of the pro-government forces," while others will not bother to vote at all.
Although six other parties, including the four represented in the coalition government, are also competing, the Zharangutiun decision not to contest the ballot has effectively substantiated the argument made by HAK office coordinator Levon Zurabian to RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the Yerevan vote will in fact be tantamount to a belated second round of the controversial February 2008 presidential election.
Ter-Petrossian has never acknowledged the outcome of that election, in which, according to official returns, then-Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian polled 52.8 percent of the vote compared with 21.5 percent for Ter-Petrossian.
The May 31 ballot will be the first since the passage in November 2005 in a nation-wide referendum of constitutional amendments that abolished the right of the Armenian president to name the Yerevan mayor.
According to legislation enacted in late December 2008, the mayor will now be selected by the 65-person Yerevan municipal council, which will be elected under the party-list system. The threshold for representation for individual political parties is 7 percent, and for alliances or blocs (a category that includes the HAK), 9 percent. Forty percent of the vote would be sufficient to give any one party or alliance a majority of the council seats.
The six other parties that have registered candidates for the vote are Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and its three junior partners: the HHD, Prosperous Armenia, and Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State); and the extra-parliamentary People's Party and Labor-Socialist Party. The last of these was founded in 2004 as the successor to the Socialist Party.
Explaining the governing coalition members' decision to participate separately, Galust Sahakian, who heads the HHK parliament faction, told RFE/RL on February 23 that "from the political standpoint, I think that if you have a strong team you should go it alone."
In early March, Zharangutiun proposed to the HAK fielding a joint list of candidates, Zurabian told journalists on March 3. But that proposal foundered due to major disagreements over which politicians should occupy which place on the list.
Zharangutiun initially wanted the joint list of candidates to be headed by Armen Martirosian, the leader of Zharangutiun parliament faction, with Ter-Petrossian in second place. Then on March 21, as a last-minute compromise, it suggested that Zharangutiun Chairman Raffi Hovannisian, who served in 1992 as foreign minister under Ter-Petrossian, take first place.
But the HAK rejected both those variants, insisting that the first two places should go to Ter-Petrossian and People's Party of Armenia chairman Stepan Demirchian (who lost the second round of the 2003 presidential election to incumbent Robert Kocharian). Demirchian's late father, Karen, who died in the 1999 parliament shootings, served from 1974-88 as first secretary of the Communist Party of Armenia. Following Ter-Petrossian's forced resignation in February 1998 he emerged as the major challenger to Kocharian, polling second in the first round with 30 percent of the vote but losing the runoff.
The HHK party list for the ballot numbers no fewer than 182 candidates headed by Gagik Beglarian, 44. An economist by profession, Beglarian was elected mayor of Yerevan's Kentron district in 2002, and reelected in 2005 and 2008. President Sarkisian named him Yerevan mayor three weeks ago.
In light of their combined popularity among Yerevan voters, Ter-Petrossian and Demirchian pose a serious challenge to Beglarian. Possibly for that reason, the HHK was swift both to criticize Ter-Petrossian's nomination as number one on the HAK list as a deliberate attempt to "politicize" the ballot, and to reject media speculation that the prospect of competing with Ter-Petrossian had plunged the HHK into a state of "panic."