Election posters in Stepanakert. Photo by Knar Babayan.

Businessman David Sargsyan was elected mayor of Stepanakert in what became the most competitive election in Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) in decades. Running in the field of five candidates Sargsyan secured 36 percent of the vote. He was followed by Grigory Sahakyan with 22, Areg Avagyan with 15, Armen Hakobyan with 14 and Arayik Avanesyan with 10 percent.

A non-partisan candidate, David Sargsyan had the support of Artsakh’s largest Free Fatherland party led by former prime minister Arayik Harutyunyan. Prior to his election Sargsyan ran Consult Finance Group, a business entity, and also headed the local kickboxing federation.

The Central Election Commission reported more than 65 percent turnout around Artsakh, a high figure for municipal-level elections and also considering the rainy weather in most of Artsakh that day. The election was also distinguished by the first-ever televised debates among candidates.

There were tight races outside Stepanakert as well. Vahan Savadyan, a civic activist was elected mayor of Hadrut with 111 vote margin, Hayk Sargsyan won in Martuni with 141 votes over nearest competitor, and Samvel Agajanyan in Askeran squeezed out a victory with just a 48 vote margin. The majority of winning candidates, with notable exception of Hadrut, had the endorsement of the Free Fatherland Party.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan welcomed the vote as “free, fair and competitive.” The Armenian government funded a monitoring mission spearheaded by two Yerevan-based non-government organizations – the Union of Informed Citizens and Transparency Armenia – whose monitors did not register any serious issues.

2020 Vote Looms

The local election was a trial run of sorts ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections due next year.

In comments after voting in Stepanakert, foreign minister Masis Mayilyan promised to make public his decision on whether he is running for president in 2020. Mayilyan sounded like his decision will be positive, saying that his initial statement “was received positively in Artsakh, in Armenia and in Diaspora.”

Mayilyan also sounded positive about Pashinyan’s pledge to “guarantee” that next year’s national elections are democratic and considered the Armenian government-funded monitoring in that context.

By contrast, another presidential hopeful, retired general Vitaly Balasanyan criticized Pashinyan’s comments and the monitoring mission as Yerevan’s “interference” in Artsakh elections.

Mayiliyan and Balasanyan were the main challengers during incumbent president Bako Sahakyan’ election and re-election, in 2007 and 2012, respectively, and supported each other’s election bids. They may now become main contenders in 2020 election.

By contrast, former prime minister Arayik Harutyunyan and former Karabakh army commander Samvel Babayan, who were actively campaigning to position themselves as presidential candidates earlier this year, have over the past month reduced their visibility.