Yerevan residents go to the polls again on May 5 for municipal elections that are being widely viewed as a continuation of the February presidential elections and an important battlefront in the ongoing quest to weaken the ruling Republican Party’s monopoly on power.
However, the state of affairs ahead of these municipal elections stands in sharp contrast to the pre-presidential election situation, even if both paint a bleak picture of Armenian politics. From what was considered a non-competitive presidential election, we have “progressed” to potentially very competitive municipal elections where opposition forces once again failed to join forces.
In total, 7 parties are vying for seats in the 65-member Council of the Elderly that oversees the activities of the city’s mayor. If any one of the competing parties receives more than 50 percent of the votes, the candidate heading that party’s list will be elected as the city’s mayor. Otherwise, the mayor will be elected by the Council of the Elderly. Naturally, the party that secures the most seats within the council gains the political clout necessary to have its top candidate elected as mayor.
Alongside the ruling party and its coalition partner, the Rule of Law Party, competing in the elections are the “Barev Yerevan” coalition of political, civic, and cultural leaders endorsed by Raffi Hohvannisian’s Heritage Party; Levon Ter-Petrossian’s newly emerged Armenian National Congress Party; Prosperous Armenia, with former Foreign Affairs Minister Vartan Oskanian heading the list of candidates; the Armenian Revolutionary Federation; and the Arakelutyun Party.
In this divided opposition “front” the possibilities for vote-sharing are difficult to predict. On the one hand, the following that Hovhannisian generated after the presidential elections offers him an advantage over the other parties. On the other hand, two factors may work less in favor of the Barev Yerevan coalition: the inability of the movement to thus far deliver concrete actions and proposals in its struggle for regime change, and the re-entry into the competition of other opposition parties whose supporters may have voted for Hovhannisian in the previous elections.
In any case, given the power, experience, and readiness of the ruling party to manipulate the elections, predicting their outcome is a futile exercise. Looking back at the February presidential elections, we have every reason to hope that Yerevan’s residents will come out in large numbers to vote with their conscience; and yet we have every reason to expect that vote results will be rigged.
The implications for the opposition parties are two-fold. The city council elections are indeed an important battlefront given both the highly influential position that is up for grabs and the opportunity to break the power monopoly existing in the country today. At the same time, however, these elections should not be treated as the be-all or end-all of the struggle for regime change.
Regardless of the results of the elections, moving forward the opposition has the opportunity to capitalize on several other factors or avenues of struggle. One such factor is the emerging generation of political activists in Armenia. We saw them in the days after the February presidential elections. They made their voices heard to foreign election observers; they toured the streets of Yerevan chanting for others to join them; and they protested in front of foreign embassies. They represent a new phenomenon in post-Soviet era Armenian politics–citizens that understand their rights and are willing to fight for them even if that means taking matters into their own hands. These young activists and civil society representatives are valuable allies to have for the opposition.
Another important factor in the post-presidential election period is the increased spotlight in the diaspora on internal political developments in Armenia, which could mark the beginning of a qualitatively new phase in Armenia-diaspora relations. Opposition political parties with an organized presence in the diaspora, particularly the ARF, could play a significant role in realizing this. A more vocal and critical diaspora that is willing to maintain long-term pressure on the authorities will be an important contributor to internal reform.
The most important factor in the ongoing struggle for a better Armenia, however, is unity. Whether it is within the Council of the Elderly or the National Assembly; on the streets of Armenia and among the ranks of its activists; in preparation of upcoming elections or in ongoing public opposition to corrupt and unfair government practices; and even in ensuring a more proactive diasporan engagement, an opposition united around the principles of democracy will be a much more powerful and credible force to reckon with for the authorities.
This will require certain political parties to determine which side of the struggle they sit on, others to re-organize their forces and re-evaluate their strategies. Whatever the differences keeping them apart thus far, those opposition forces that are determined to change the state of affairs in Armenia must come to realize that their failure to unite will inevitably translate into their failure to achieve this change.