The Municipal Election was a Referendum on the PM, but is that Good for Yerevan?

Last week, Yerevantsis took to the polls for the first time since the spring’s Velvet Revolution. Hayk Marutyan, running on the ‘My Step’ ticket (a coalition dominated by PM Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party), won with an astounding 81% of the counted ballots: the largest margin in Yerevan’s democratic history. By the time the votes were tallied, all the major candidates had hailed the election as democratic and conceded the results.

By any measure, last week’s election was a significant step forward for democratic consolidation in Armenia. In contrast with previous elections, common electoral violations, including vote buying, the use of administrative resources, and voter intimidation, were nowhere to be found. The Central Election Committee (CEC) recorded only 129 complaints (compared to 1,618 for the previous year). The uninitiated observer could be forgiven for assuming that this was just a run of the mill election, given the civil tone of the campaign and uneventful election day.

Though the technical aspect of the vote may have gone smoothly, the vote’s outcome was uncommonly consequential. As many observers (including this author) pointed out, the Yerevan municipal election wasn’t about choosing the mayor of Yerevan as much as it was a referendum on Pashinyan’s leadership. With a new parliamentary election still months away, the Yerevan election offered a first chance for the public to confirm their choice through the ballot box. This sentiment resonated throughout the campaign, where Yerevan’s municipal issues essentially took a backseat to matters of national significance.

It should be said that Yerevan’s municipal votes have always had the veneer of national elections. The concentration of population, money and political power in the Capital contributes to the city’s disproportionate weight in the minds of Armenian policymakers. Since control of the Yerevan City Council also means control over almost half the country’s population—the majority of its economic output and diplomatic presence—municipal elections have become increasingly competitive. The fact that they tend to be scheduled directly after significant national votes has also contributed to their status as de facto ‘run-off’ elections.

Levon Ter-Petrossian, Raffi Hovhannissian and a pre-Velvet Pashinyan have all attempted (with little success) to run for mayor in the wake of hotly disputed or controversial national elections. The resulting attitude to municipal politics by the national parties, who see it as little more than a secondary battleground rather than a position of responsibility, has hampered the development of robust party infrastructures. Parties which could have pooled candidates from a roster of seasoned municipal legislators, instead have to pull star candidates from one level of government to another. Notably, an unprepared Yelq faction was recently forced to draw members from the City Council to fill newly vacant positions at the national level, out of a sheer lack of qualified candidates. The Luys party’s disappointing showing will exacerbate the shortage of experienced counsellors, having lost most of its seats.

In a campaign filled with revolutionary slogans and promises to tackle corruption and political posturing, discussions on issues of Yerevan’s city management were conspicuously absent. Although virtually every party platform included references to public transport reform, revitalizing green spaces, tourism infrastructure development and waste management, specifics were few and far between.

In a campaign filled with revolutionary slogans and promises to tackle corruption and political posturing, discussions on issues of Yerevan’s city management were conspicuously absent.

The Civil Contract’s electoral platform is similarly brief when it comes to how they intend to implement their campaign promises. This fact seems to have had little impact on the course of the campaign. When pressed by an RFE/RL reporter about how he intended to finance his proposed public transport overhaul, Marutyan could only answer in generalities. After all, he could have answered anything, and it wouldn’t have mattered. This vote was about giving Pashinyan a mandate. Marutyan himself bluntly stressed this point earlier in the same interview. The electorate, it seems, remained undeterred.

Acutely aware of his ersatz status, Marutyan has actively played up his relationship to Pashinyan in the runup to the vote. The prime minister is featured prominently on billboards, raising Marutyan’s arm in approval. The mayoral candidate almost felt like the opening act at his own campaign rally in the working-class Malatya neighborhood. Marutyan spent approximately 42 minutes briefly covering his 9-point plan, only to cede the stage to Pashinyan, the main event, for the remaining hour.

Marutyan’s unwillingness to step out of the popular prime minister’s shadow did little to flatter his image. Already pegged by critics as a political novice, his ultimate refusal to take part in a televised debate disappointed many. Voters missed a pivotal chance to see their candidate perform against other hopefuls in an uncontrolled environment, without the aid of pre-written speeches, the safety of a soapbox, or the PM’s presence.

This isn’t to say that the new city government won’t do a good job. What the incoming city councillors lack in political experience is more than made up for in professional job performance, managerial skills, and so on. The urban planners, engineers, IT specialists, and former bankers would complement the more zealous environmental and civic activists on the council. The new mayor won’t even need to reinvent the wheel. Yerevan maintains partnerships with some 24 international cities, including Paris and Montreal. Lawmakers could also look to other post-socialist cities like Tallinn, Prague or Warsaw as blueprints for urban renewal.

Marutyan’s stunning victory has reignited a stalled democratic process in Armenia. Inclusive plurality,hitherto relegated to the sidelines of the political discourse, has now entered the mainstream, but this was only the first step. As Armenians have already witnessed in the early 1990s, it’s all too easy for young, popular reformers to succumb to arrogance of power. The second, more definitive step will be taken when political discourse moves away from Messiah-candidates and toward the issues. Time for Marutyan to “take a step.”

Raffi Elliott

Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. A former correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, his focus is socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia.

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