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tdn: Armenians elect president after weeks of political struggle

Bagila Bukharbayeva

Armenian President Robert Kocharian will make a second attempt today to win another five-year term in office after a tension-filled, two-week runoff campaign that threatened the stability of this former Soviet republic.

Kocharian fell just short of the simple majority he needed to win the Feb. 19 election outright, receiving 49.48 percent of the votes, according to official results. His challenger in today’s second round, People’s Party leader Stepan Demirchian, received 28.22 percent, while seven other candidates were knocked out of the race.

The opposition accused Kocharian supporters of rigging the vote in the first round, an allegation backed up by international monitors’ observations of ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition representatives.

Beginning on the day the election results were announced, Demirchian’s supporters held demonstrations virtually every day, calling on the incumbent to resign. Scores of opposition supporters were detained for alleged hooligan acts, and punished by fines or police custody for up to 15 days.

In his campaign appearances, Kocharian has been at pains to show his determination to ensure a fair election this time.

“We need a double victory: We need to win the election, and we need to win in a fair and transparent vote,” Kocharian said.

In spite of the stamina of Demirchian’s supporters, his fortunes have declined over the past two weeks. One major opposition party, the Communist Party of Armenia, said it would not support either of the candidates. Demirchian also failed to win support from the National Unity Party, whose leader Artashes Gegamian came in third in the first round. Gegamian said the February vote was rigged and demanded a new election altogether.

Demirchian, 43, has run on an anti-corruption platform. He has tried to attract voters using the political image of his father, Soviet-era Communist leader Karen Demirchian – Kocharian’s main rival in the 1998 presidential contest and a victim of a 1999 shooting spree in parliament that left eight people dead.

The opposition blames Kocharian, 48, for about 30 unresolved deaths in recent years that it claims were political killings, and for the widening gap between rich and poor in this nation of 3.3 million people.

One of Kocharian’s strong points among voters is his contribution to the victory in the 1998-94 war with Azerbaijan over the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Kocharian is a native of Nagorno-Karabakh and was a key figure in the region’s movement for self determination. He is widely seen as unlikely to compromise on a final settlement over the enclave’s future, leaving its inhabitants’ territorial gains intact.

Gevorg Poghosian, president of the independent Armenian Sociological Association, said Demirchian lacks political experience and a good team, and that Kocharian is the most pragmatic choice for today.

“People know Kocharian and he is predictable,” he said.

The winner must get a simple majority of votes irrespective of turnout. Preliminary results are expected on Thursday.

Yerevan – The Associated Press

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