Kocharian Leads Demirchian as Candidates Prepare for Run Off Vote

YEREVAN (Reuters–Noyan Tapan)– Armenia’s acting president and his top challenger headed on Tuesday for a second-round runoff after Monday’s special presidential elections

The Central Elections Commission said with some 75 percent of Monday’s vote counted–Prime Minister Robert Kocharian had 38.8 percent while his main rival–Armenia’s Soviet-era leader Karen Demirchian–had got 30.5 percent.

The Central Elections Commission gave the figures for leading contenders at 10:30 p.m. local time. Full results are not expected until Wednesday.

Of the 1,139,000 votes counted–Kocharian received 38.8 percent while Demirchian had 30.5 percent. Communist party candidate Sergei Badalyan garnered 12.4 with last year’s opposition candidate Vazgen Manoukian receiving 11.8 percent of the votes. Self-Determination Union candidate Paruir Hairikian received 5.6 percent of votes.

The seven other candidates each have less than one percent of the vote.

CEC chairman Khachatour Bezirjan said it was clear that Kocharian and Demirchian would face each other in a second round in March 30 after no candidate won a majority in the first round.

Total election turnout was 66 percent of the 2.2 million-strong electorate.

Even before it began–Tuesday’s count was clouded by a controversy that seemed certain to thrust the mountainous country into another political crisis and unnerve neighbors in the oil-rich Caspian Sea region.

As voting ended on Monday–six of the candidates–including Demirchian–signed a statement saying the vote had been marred by fraud and leaving little doubt they blamed Kocharian’s camp.

"The entire election process has shown that there are large amounts of violation–falsification–and terror," the statement said. "We declare that the extraordinary election in Armenia–regardless of the results–cannot be considered free and fair."

Paruyr Hairikian–one of five presidential candidates who signed a statement claiming invalid the March 16 presidential election in Armenia–said he regretted joining the four other candidates.

According to Azg daily newspaper–at 3 am–Self-Determination Union leader Hairikian said that he was misinformed when he lend his signature to the statement.

International observers accused Armenia of election fraud in 1995 and most recently during the last presidential poll in 1996 which re-elected Ter-Petrosyan. He later used tanks and troops to quell street protests against the outcome.

On Tuesday–Demirchian’s campaign manager–Armen Khachaturian–lashed out at the election commission–telling Reuters–"We know the CEC is falsifying the vote count."

"There is no basis for such a statement," commission chairman Khachatur Bezirjan replied. Kocharian’s camp also dismissed charges of fraud by saying even if there had been some irregularities–they were not enough to have a big impact.

"The statement by the six candidates is an expression of their panic. It is an attempt to cast a shadow over the election," said Aghvan Vartanian–a top Kocharian aide.

Diplomats say Armenia badly needs a clean vote to rebuild its image abroad–tarnished by the fraud-tainted polls in 1995 and 1996.

Foreign observers said there were reports of some voting irregularities but said it was too early to judge whether violations had any substantial effect on the final results.

Serious fraud occurred in the past in the counting.

"In comparison with what I saw–the voting process was much better than in 1995 and 1996," said Mark Almond of the British Helsinki Watch Committee. "But this is only one stage of the election process and it will be important to see what happens with the vote count."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe–which has the largest observer group–says it will reserve comment until Wednesday.

According to Russian monitors Raif Biktagirov and Igor Yelanov–the presidential election in Armenia was held within the limits of Armenian law.

Biktagirov and Yelanov said that on the day of the election–they visited many polling stations in Yerevan and adjacent regions. They reported high turnouts and said there were no rude violations of election law.

According to the Russian observers–representatives of presidential candidates did not present any evidence of violations.

Commenting on the statement by five presidential candidates that "the election was held with gross violations in an atmosphere of fraud and intimidation," Biktagirov and Yelanov noted that such a statement needs to be confirmed by relevant evidence. The Russian observers praised the CEC’s stance on withholding action until further evidence is provided.

Member of the mission of observers from the Council of Europe–Bernard Owen–also reported that the election process was normal and without significant breaches of law. In an interview with "Ar" television program–the Council of Europe representative said that the major setback in the election process was an extremely intricate election law.

Owen also said that the statement issued by the five presidential candidates indicating that the election cannot be regarded as fair and free had come as a surprise to him. He found that similar statemen’s need to be based on concrete evidence

Foreign countries are scrutinizing the election because of sensitivities over the nearby Caspian oil wealth as well as concerns for Armenian democracy.

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