Kocharian Re-Election Enrages Opposition

Robert Kocharian wins second presidential term - but his opponents say they will contest the election result.

Kocharian Re-Election Enrages Opposition

Robert Kocharian wins second presidential term - but his opponents say they will contest the election result.

Thousands of opposition demonstrators took to the streets of Yerevan this week in protest at the re-election of Robert Kocharian as president of Armenia.

According to preliminary results of the March 5 run-off, Kocharian and his main challenger Stepan Demirchian polled 67 and 32 per cent of the vote respectively.

Demirchian and 15 political parties that support him have declared they will refuse to accept the official result of the poll. "It is clear that.. the results of these elections have nothing in common with the choice made by the people," Demirchian said in a statement.

"We are determined to get this regime to resign in the next two or three days and prosecute the chairman of the Central Electoral Commission Artak Sagradian," Aram Sarkisian, leader of the Republican Party told demonstrators.

The opposition, whose supporters rallied in the capital on March 6, is hoping that a flood of reports of vote-rigging and intimidation will keep up the pressure on the governing regime.

Grigor Harutiunian, the head of Demirchian's election campaign, told a press conference that many of the candidate's proxies had been physically removed from polling stations. "We were thrown out of the stations so they could stuff the ballot boxes without any hindrance," said one member of an electoral commission, who asked to remain anonymous.

Harutiunian said electoral commissions had refused to approve the results of local stations that had declared Demirchian had won a majority of the vote.

Opposition newspapers Aravot and Haikakan Zhamanak published photographs the day before the poll of ballot papers in which a cross had already been marked against Robert Kocharian's name, suggesting they had been prepared in advance for polling day.

These complaints have been given weight by statements from a joint observer team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, which said it witnessed "serious irregularities" in the voting as it had done in the first round of the election two weeks before.

In a statement made the day after the election, the observers said that "the election process overall fell short of international standards". OSCE mission chief Peter Eicher said, "We are disappointed: we had hoped for better."

However, the observers stopped short of saying that the falsifications they had seen invalidated the poll.

The same observer team gave a strongly critical report of the first round of voting on February 19, in which Kocharian was awarded 49.5 per cent of the vote. The opposition complained that dozens of its supporters were arrested for taking part in a string of vast demonstrations held in Yerevan after that poll. Many were freed only after appeals from the head of the Armenian church, Garegin II and the OSCE.

Reports have circulated on the Internet of more arrests since the run-off, including that of former mayor of Yerevan Vahan Khachatrian. As this article goes to press, no news was heard of Khachatrian.

Kocharian's electoral team, however, dismissed the allegations of fraud and manipulation. "The elections proceeded calmly and citizens were able to fulfill their civic duty," said an official statement. The presidential team accused the opposition of spreading "false and unfounded rumours".

A group of observers from Commonwealth of Independent States countries, headed by CIS executive director Yury Yarov, agreed with the official view. "The second round of the presidential elections was conducted democratically, efficiently and legitimately in accordance with the demands of the electoral code of Armenia," they said in a statement.

This election has created deep divisions in Armenia. Tens of thousands of people attended opposition rallies in the capital after the first vote, but state television gave no coverage to them. A media monitoring group at Yerevan's Caucasus Media Institute concluded that the clash between the demonstrators and the television station had widened the splits in society.

However, Armenia did experience one unprecedented event two days before the poll, when the two candidates, Kocharian and Demirchian, engaged in a live television debate. The two men conducted a kind of joint press conference, which was broadcast on six television channels.

Many voters responded warmly to Demirchian, who had been continuously criticised by the state media for weeks before.

"I was finally able to see Demirchian," said Marina Gasparian, a housewife. "He has common sense and he replies honestly to questions. I like him."

Others were impressed by Kocharian. "He showed that he is in control of the situation in the country," said historian Haik Demoyan. "I am sure that he won the debate."

"It was obvious that Kocharian was nervous," said Gagik Avakian, who coordinated the Caucasus Media Institute's media monitoring project. "He was like a sportsman, getting ready for a decisive duel. While at first Demirchian was hiding his annoyance, he gradually got on top of the situation and was calm and assured for most of the debate."

The next few days in Armenia promise to be very tense. Kocharian is clearly hoping that opposition protests will fade away and the Armenian public will give him the benefit of the doubt. His strongest cards in his electoral campaign were that he had given Armenia political stability and modest economic growth.

Some voters do seem prepared to accept the official result. "I would give Robert Kocharian a chance to continue what he's begun," said Gevork Gevorkian a 52-year old teacher of literature. "There has been some movement forward in the last few years. Let's see."

Mark Grigorian is IWPR's Armenia coordinator and deputy director of the Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan.

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