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Nervous Armenia Heads for Second Vote

Opposition demonstrators accuse Robert Kocharian of electoral fraud as a second round is declared in the Armenian presidential election.
By Mark Grigorian

The atmosphere in Yerevan was explosive on February 21 as tens of thousands of people rallied in the centre of the city, claiming that opposition candidate Stepan Demirchian had triumphed in the first round of the presidential election two days before.

Demirchian urged his supporters to remain calm, telling them, "We must take the power by the force of the law only."

Other opposition leaders were more outspoken. Aram Sarkisian, who withdrew his candidacy in favour of Demirchian, told the crowd, "If the central electoral commission does not review the result and declare Demirchian the winner, we will organise a rally on Sunday and take our supporters to the presidential administration to demand Kocharian's resignation."

The official results had proclaimed a strong lead for President Robert Kocharian. The chairman of the central electoral commission, Artak Sahradian, declared that Kocharian had fallen short of a first-round victory by just 0.2 per cent of the ballot - with 49.8 per cent of votes cast - with his main challenger Demirchian trailing with 28.3 per cent.

The third placed candidate, Artashes Gegamian, who won 17 per cent of the vote, has not yet declared his allegiance for the second round on March 5.

The president's election team is already predicting an easy triumph for him in the run-off. "Robert Kocharian has a stable electorate," said his campaign manager, Defence Minister Serzh Sarkisian. "We have made the right conclusions and we will definitely win."

Despite this, Demirchian's supporters seemed to be full of confidence, buoyed by a damning report from international observers and the prospect of a two-week extension of their candidate's campaign.

In anticipation of trouble, riot police and water cannon were deployed around the presidential building in central Yerevan. A policeman watching the large opposition demonstration said quietly, "We won't act against our people. These are our brothers and sisters. How can we act against them?"

On polling day, February 19, a vast crowd of Demirchian supporters had braved heavy snowfalls to gather in the centre of the city and protest at early election results. With only a small number of votes counted, state television had announced that morning that President Kocharian was heading for re-election with 54 per cent of the vote.

"Where do they get these numbers from?" one elderly woman demanded of the policemen surrounding the demonstrators. "Everyone I know says they voted for Demirchian." The policemen turned away and she went up to a group of journalists and said, "Surely justice will prevail?"

A 200-strong team of international election observation mission deployed by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, agreed that the electoral process had been manipulated.

"It is encouraging that election day went reasonably well, but serious irregularities did not enable us to make an overall positive assessment", said Lord Russell-Johnston, head of the PACE delegation.

"While we were pleased to see an active and vigorous campaign, we are concerned about serious shortcomings that were evident during the run-up to the election", added Peter Eicher, the head of the ODIHR long-term observer mission.

Observers said that voting in polling stations had been generally free, but that the count had been seriously flawed, with many cases of stuffing of ballot boxes.

Media monitors were also strongly critical of the news coverage of the election. "Neither the pro-government nor opposition media was willing or able to go beyond evaluative or tendentious coverage of events," the Yerevan-based Caucasus Media Institute, CMI, concluded in a report.

The media monitors found that Kocharian had received the lion's share of news coverage on all television channels, forcing his nine opposition challengers to rely on public meetings to put their case against him.

"The people have been offered rumours and fantastic projects, given promises and sometimes it has just been plain insults," said sociologist Aharon Adibekian, who conducted a survey of public opinion.

This has bred a deep cynicism in many voters about the electoral process as a whole. "Everyone lies," said Maria Asatrian, a resident of the town of Yeghegnadzor, a small town 130 km from Yerevan, before the election.

"The only thing the candidates want is a comfortable job. Of course I will go to the polls but I will vote against them all."

And while the capital has remained politically active, the governing regime has benefited from the traditional obedience of people in the provinces to whoever is in power.

In the village of Chiva, near Yekhegnadzor, one man said that everyone was preparing to vote for whoever the village head told them to. "All the candidates came here during the campaign and we welcomed all of them," he said.

"But we will vote for the person that the local authorities want. That's how it's always been and it's not for us to change things."

For some, this election has brought a strong sense of déjà vu. Many believe that in Armenia's two previous presidential elections in 1996 and 1998, the candidate who was officially placed second was actually the winner.

On polling day in the village of Malishka, pensioner Gevork Manukian told IWPR that he had voted for Karen Demirchian, father of Stepan, last time around, saying, "I think he won those elections., but Robert Kocharian became president. Today I voted for Karen's son Stepan. He is young and he can do something."

However, the polarisation of society triggered by the election is somewhat reminiscent of the disputed poll of 1996, which led to violence on the streets of Yerevan.

"Whoever wins in the second round, the system of power in Armenia will change," commented political scientist Alexander Iskandarian. "The president who is elected on March 5 will be weaker and it will take him a long time to build up his power base."

Mark Grigorian is IWPR's Armenia coordinator and deputy director of the Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan. Karine Ter-Saakian is a reporter with Respublika Armenii newspaper.

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