Paper ballot boxes, minor clashes, and another assault… Yes, it’s election time in Yerevan
No sooner does the ruling Republican Party of Armenia inform journalists that there is no mutual hatred or enmity between political forces contesting the crucial municipal election to determine Yerevan’s mayor on 31 May comes news of some minor clashes between opposition supporters and the police. Oh, and did I mention an albeit aborted violent assault on a television journalist?
No? Well, first things first.Â To begin with, two brief but potentially volatile incidents have occured at rallies held by the extra-parliamentary opposition Armenian National Congress (ANC) led by the country’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrossian. Thankfully the first clash didn’t result in anything more than shoving, but it at least gave me an opportunity to test live streaming from mobile phoneÂ in case future incidents escalate into something much worse.
Meanwhile, after a local pollster announced the findings of an arguably less than scientific surveyÂ indicating that Prosperous Armenia, a member of the coalition government, could barely count on even 20 percent of votes in the Yerevan election, a TV journalist on whose program the findings were announced was assaulted outside his apartment building early this morning.
Shant TV’sÂ Nver Mnatsakanian escaped serious injury thanks only to the immediate reaction of his neighbors. The party, founded by perhaps the country’s richest and most feared oligarch known more for his “philanthropic deeds” at election time rather than actual campaigning, denies that the two events are linked. Mnatsakanian apparently doesn’t either, but others aren’t so sure.
Coincidentally, the party’s founder and head, MP and businessman Gagik Tsarukian, offered the pollster in question $1 million if he could back up his claims. The former world arm-wrestling champion later reduced the amount to AMD 1 million (about $2,700) Regardless, what perhaps remains the biggest problem of all is that such news has become more important than actual discussion of policy issues, campaigning or even engaging the electorate.
Indeed, perhaps with the exception of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation — Dashnaktsutyun (ARF-D), which does at least go through the motions while also hoping to benefit from its recent departure from government, the opposition is also guilty. While it could present real examples of negligence, mismanagement and corruption in local governance to potential voters, the emphasis insteadÂ remains on regime change.
It’s no wonder then that an international election monitoring team is concerned by the conduct of the pre-election campaign after only a few days. The three-member delegation consisting ofÂ Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional AuthoritiesVice-President Fabio Pellegrin, Michel GuÃ©gan and Nigel Mermagen expressed concern at the battle shaping up between the government and opposition.
“We are concerned that the real needs of the citizens of Yerevan could be brushed aside because of this confrontation,” saidÂ Mermagen.
No change there, then, but with little other attention from the international community, the vote could prove very problematic indeed. Although few believe claims of outright victory from any of the parties, the absence of a sufficient number of election observers on polling day will not help matters. Moreover, although transparent ballot boxes were introduced for elections held since 2003 to minimize fraud,Â media reports indicate that this time round they will be made of… paper.
Yes, it’s election time again in a tiny land-locked former Soviet republic with pro-governmental parties planting trees instead of cutting them down as they usually do to make room for more of their own cafÃ©s in public parks while roads and back yards are asphalted after years of neglect and coincidently on the same day as election meetings are held in the same area.
For its part, the opposition instead hopes to exploit fears over recent talk of rapprochement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey even if this is actually a municipal election. Just don’t mention that the very same policy was also pursued by the opposition’s main candidate, Levon Ter-Petrossian, when he was president — or at least until an internal coup d’Ã©tat forced him to resign in 1998.Â
Meanwhile, in other news, the police have announced a substantial increase in the number of voters registered in Yerevan since this time last year and many might wonder what other “surprises” lie in store as the campaign progresses. After all, the first week hasn’t even ended yet. So, until the next Frontline Club post, why not keep up to date with the latest developments on my personal blog or Twitter feed.
Elections can be controversial even in democracies, but in countries such as Armenia they’re something else entirely. Watch this space.
Photo: ANC pre-election campaign rally, Komitas, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia Â© Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2009