Elections of the local administration bodies of Yerevan city are scheduled on May 31, 2009. Given the size of Yerevan’s population (over 1 million according to official data on Yerevan municipality website ), which comprises one third of Armenia’s population, and the city’s economic significance (roughly 50% of Armenia’s economic activity is concentrated in Yerevan according to IMF data ), the upcoming elections can be compared to nationwide parliamentary or presidential elections.
More importantly, for the first time in Armenia the elections are held on a 100% proportional list, which highlights the importance and responsibility of political parties much more and also politicizes local self-government elections in Yerevan (held at the level of district self-government bodies).
Armenian opposition have further highlighted the importance of Yerevan’s municipal elections, as opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian, the first president of Armenia and the second-runner in last year’s presidential elections, entered the race to run for Yerevan’s elderly council on the first spot in the party list of opposition Armenian National Congress (ANC).
While nobody doubts the significance of the upcoming elections, the new Law on Local Administration of Yerevan city, which was passed by the Armenian parliament at the end of December 2008 , has caused quite a bit of confusion among the political forces, media and public at large. In fact, most politicians and media avoid speaking on the new law, and have very vague understanding of what rights and responsibilities stem from it for the Yerevan’s elected council of elders and the mayor elected through a specific procedure.
As a result, the public has also become entangled in two contradicting views of the upcoming elections. One such view, perpetuated by the opposition defines the elections as a political process, where the only issue of importance is that of holding open, democratic and transparent elections and “restoring justice via an electoral process”, a way to “stand up to the authorities”.
The pro-government parties, on the other hand, try to play down the political significance of the elections, saying this is only about ‘garbage removal’ and distracting all attention from the democratic electoral process.
Traditionally local self-government elections have been largely neglected by the political forces and national media alike. However, the recent trends have already demonstrated the heightened interest towards the upcoming elections, which, unlike other local self-government elections, is purely partisan based. Despite more consistent media coverage, the fact, that the Armenian media are also highly partisan. Most media outlets support either the pro-government political forces or the opposition. Thus the significance of the elections for the public is lost for the most part.
As the monitoring of media coverage of local self-government elections in September-October, 2008 carried out by Yerevan Press Club demonstrated, the media, especially in Yerevan, rarely adequately perform their role of helping the voters to make an informed choice at local self-government elections.
Issues of public interest, such as local community development, adequate use of community budget, environment, health and security issues are lost in mutual offences of candidates. Media also provide extensive coverage of election process, while failing to focus attention of what these elections are actually for and how the public can benefit from them.
This, to a large extent, is due to the media functioning in isolation from the public, with little interaction between them and little feedback from the public as to what the public demands and expects from the media.
Hence, it is necessary to shift the media attention from political endorsements towards the provision of information of public value, allowing the voters to understand the essence of the issues at stake and the ways to overcome them. It is also important to convey the idea, that the local self-government elections at Armenia’s largest community is the first significant building block for the system of democratic governance in Armenia – drawing from the concept, that “democracy is best where it is closer to people”.
More importantly, these elections also represent a second chance to put democracy right in the country after the flawed electoral process during last year’s presidential elections which led to mass protests and violence in the streets of Yerevan.