Blocked candidates overshadow Istanbul Armenian patriarch election

The Armenian community in Istanbul will vote for its new patriarch on Sunday, in the first election in 12 years since the former Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan fell ill in 2008.

Mutafyan’s death on March 8 has allowed the community to hold a vote that it had wanted for a decade, but the election has also raised a great deal of controversy over a regulation that many feel has unfairly prevented most candidates from running.

The Patriarchate is the highest position in the Armenian community, both from a religious and social perspective. The patriarch is also recognised by the state and internationally as the leader of Armenians in the country, and as such has a say in all material and spiritual matters that affect his community.

Since 1960, there has been no mechanism to veto a patriarch’s decisions. In the more democratic structure that came before that date, the patriarch would have to consult a 40-person assembly from the community. Since his powers were augmented in 1960, that is no longer necessary, and the office of the patriarch has become all the stronger.

That makes the election, and the claims that it is being conducted unfairly, all the more important for Turkey’s Armenians, today a minority community of an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 people. The controversy was sparked when the Turkish Interior Ministry drafted regulations related to the election to replace Mutafyan. This included a stipulation that candidates must come from within the Patriarchate – a rule that rules out 10 out of the 13 possible candidates who are currently serving abroad.

One of the three remaining candidates has chosen to boycott the election over the regulation, which he called unfair. The other two candidates, Acting Patriarch Aram Ateşyan and Bishop Sahak Maşalyan, have expressed their regret at the other candidates being excluded but have not officially objected to the regulation.

In fact, the Patriarchate has also refused to use its right of objection despite the strong criticisms coming from the Armenian community, urging many to question how the controversial regulations came about.

“Is it because the Turkish state wants it like this, or or have some members of the community led the state to make this decision?” a member of the Armenian enterprising board, who was responsible for the election process but has resigned and did not wish to be named, said to Ahval. “Why hasn’t the Patriarchate used its right to object against the injustice? A similar problem was solved in the last patriarchal election using the right of objection.”

The former board member referred to the election in 1998, when the Turkish government told the Armenian church to choose its next patriarch rather than granting the Armenian community a vote. 

The Patriarchate used its right of objection, and several months later the government agreed to hold an election. Many believe that using this right again could persuade the government to budge and allow the other candidates to run.

Şahin Gezer, a former member of the Patriarchate’s property commission, said both remaining candidates were running bitter election campaigns that had turned members of the community against one another.

“They’re going to the elections having trodden on the rights of the other 11 candidates. Now there are only two left and the process has been dreadful – reciprocal accusations, insults,” said Gezer.

“Ateşyan has done nothing for the Armenian community in the years he’s been acting patriarch, he only served his own interests. And I don’t see Maşalyan as having the capacity to serve as patriarch,” he said.

Despite the low quality of the candidates, Gezer said, the acrimony of the election process had rubbed off on the Armenian community, increasing tensions and polarisation.

“We’re trying hard not to take sides, but the ‘us or them’ mentality has taken hold,” he said. “I’m worried about whether Armenians will be able to go back to being a community once the election is over.”

Eight members of the Patriarchate’s enterprising board had resigned over their concerns about the election, but this had changed nothing, according to Gezer.

“Both candidates are saying they knew the regulation would be this way. So, how did they know, and why didn’t they do anything? They say the state wanted it that way, but they’ve got a right of objection – why didn’t they use it?” Gezer said.

The enterprising board member who resigned over the election regulations said Ateşyan had had a history of working against the Armenian community’s will, starting with his appointment by Turkey’s Interior Ministry when Patriarch Mutafyan grew ill. 

“He did not allow any of our demands for elections when Patriarh Mutafyan became ill (with Alzheimers, in 2008). We gathered 6,000 signatures for this, but he did not take any notice,” he said.

Pressure to hold elections arose again in 2017, when an attempt was made to hold a vote based on a rule stating that a patriarch who is unable to perform his religious duties for seven years will be dismissed.

But Ateşyan again blocked the vote, this time by resigning, the former enterprising board member said.

When the electoral regulations this year provoked outrage from the Armenian community, the board member and several of his colleagues demanded the use of the right of objection.

“But they didn’t even write one,” he said. “I resigned because under these conditions the election won’t be fair. And I don’t think the state has come to this decision deliberately.”

The first stage of the elections will take place on Sunday, when the Armenian community selects delegates, and these will vote for the patriarch during the second stage on Dec. 11. 

© Ahval English