Kocharian Victory Predicted as Armenia Wraps up Presidential Elections

According to preliminary results–incumbent President Robert Kocharian appears to have won the Presidential elections. Results from districts of Armavir–Syunik–Shirak–Gegharkunik–for example–put the incumbent Kocharian comfortably ahead of his rivals. Asbarez will provide a comprehensive report of results tomorrow.

YEREVAN (Combined Sources)–Citizens of Armenia headed to polling stations on Wednesday to elect their president for the next five years. 1,865 polling stations operated in Armenia–33 in foreign countries housing strong Armenian communities. Polling stations in Armenia opened at 8AM and closed at 8PM. Voter turnout was high despite heavy snowfall that began the previous night and carried on into Wednesday.

Polls had suggested that Kocharian was ahead of his eight rivals with the only real threat coming from Stepan Demirchian–the son of a former Soviet leader of Armenia who lost to Kocharian in the 1998 election.

The opposition’s failure to unite behind a single candidate–undoubtedly bolstered Kocharian’s chances.

Some 470 international observers from Council of Europe-member countries–OSCE (with more than 250 monitors)–CIS–Iran and other countries monitored the election in addition to thousands of local monitors.

The CIS mission is led by the executive secretary of the CIS Yuri Yarov–the OSCE mission is led by Peter Eicher; the mission is due to present its crucial preliminary conclusions on Thursday. Lord Russell Johnston–who leads a Council of Europe observation team–said he had been assured by election officials that the election will be the best Armenia has ever had.

The International monitors were dispatched to all Armenian provinces to watch voting and ballot calculation processes. Preliminary reports of monitors stated that voting proceeded calmly.

The West–in the meantime–is watching the election to see how the winner will tackle the protracted Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan. In 1988–Armenia’s of Karabakh declared independence–sparking a six-year conflict that has left 35,000 dead. A shaky cease-fire has been in place since 1994.

For voters in Armenia–however–Karabakh is likely a secondary issue outweighed by low living standards. Average monthly wages in Armenia amount to about $40.

Although Kocharian has brought stability–with electricity and natural gas supplies widely restored–and pensions being paid on time–poverty is still an issue in Armenia.

TURNOUT

CEC Chairman Artak Sahradian announced that as of 11:00 PM– Feb. 19–61–61.9% of eligible voters–or 1,420,344 participated in the elections countrywide. 58.1% (or 429,810 people) in Yerevan–68.6% in Ararat–67.5% in Armavir–65.3% in Gegharkunik–58.9% in Lori–62.1% in Kotayk–54.2% in Shirak–72.3% in Syunik–66.2% in Vayots Dzor–and 67.6% in Tavush.

The CEC Chairman revealed that of the 33 complaints received by the CEC–25 were investigated with no serious findings. The violations–Sahradian revealed–cannot impact the outcome of the elections. The remaining complaints are being studied.

Many of those who chose to cast their ballots appeared convinced that their vote will make a difference.

Ashot Kirakosian–a retiree–said he would vote either for Geghamian or another opposition hopeful–Vazgen Manukian–as he was heading for his Yerevan precinct. He said there have been some improvemen’s under Kocharian–but those were not big enough.

"I don’t see any progress," disagreed another pensioner–Satenik Navasardian. "I can not even heat my home."

"This is the first time I am voting and I have big hopes," said Anna Hovsepian–a university student. She said she voted for opposition candidate Artashes Geghamian in the hope of seeing faster economic development and more state benefits for young people of her age.

"I voted for Robert Kocharian because he is the only candidate capable of making Armenia’strong–peaceful and prosperous," said Rafik Sirunian–an elderly literature scholar.

PREDICTIONS

The incumbent Kocharian–speaking to reporters after casting his ballot in Yerevan–sounded confident of reelection. He said he would not have joined the race without making "appropriate calculations" of his popularity. Kocharian added he will spend the rest of the day resting–following a one-month election campaign.

Kocharian pledged that the elections would be free of procedural violations. He said that international monitors and journalists are both free to observe closely the course of the voting and the vote count. "You are able to tour polling stations. We have done everything possible. I think the elections will be really free and fair" he said.

"We believe that our victory in the first round is absolutely realistic," commented Demirchian–and highly assessed his chances for victory in the first round as "quite realistic."

Another leading opposition contender–Artashes Geghamian–also predicted defeat for Kocharian. Geghamian predicted that the election will likely go into a runoff between himself and Demirchian. Runoffs are tentatively scheduled for March 5.

Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said he expected the president to win a clear first-round victory. Fifty percent plus one vote is needed for a clear first-round win. But Kocharian’s most popular rival–Stepan Demirchian–insisted that his chances of a first round win are more "realistic."

"I don’t think that there are forces in Armenia that would revolutionize the country within one day," said Defense Minister Serge Sargsian–who voted in the N0351 polling precinct situated in Spandarian School together with his wife and daughter. The minister said that he still believed that Robert Kocharian would win outright in the first round and that the runoff is excluded. He also confirmed that he voted "in favor of continuity."

Sargsian ruled out the possibility of serving as prime minister in the event of Kocharian’s re-election–emphasizing that he will continue in the capacity of the defense minister.

IRREGULARITIES

Thousands of Armenia’s whose names were erroneously omitted from voter lists flocked to courts Wednesday to restore their voting rights and participate in the ongoing presidential election.

Long lines formed outside court buildings across the country as angry voters scrambled for rulings authorizing them to cast ballots. Officials said more than 7,000 of them were reinstated in voter registers by late afternoon. The most number of inaccuracies were registered in the Malatia-Sebastia district where 800 people had to re-established their voting rights. Inaccuracies in voter lists have been chronic in Armenia in recent years. The CEC chairman Artak Sahradian reported that the number of omissions are–nevertheless–much lower than in previous years. Kocharian’s campaign spokesman Vahagn Mkrtchian accused the opposition of stirring up "artificial tensions" in the country. Mkrtchian said the opposition campaigners are themselves "terrorizing and intimidating" election officials.

A group of 300-400 people picketed a Kocharian campaign office situated in the Nor Nork district of Yerevan for about 4 hours. Witnesses said representatives of the People’s Party as well as an A1+ TV reporter were among the picketers.

Mkrtchian said there were also reports that groups of people had been walking around the streets campaigning against Kocharian. OSCE observers were informed.

The headquarters received reports of attempted bribery in the towns of Artashat and Ararat. Another incident occurred in the Arabkir district of Yerevan where supporters of presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian clashed with reporters from Shant TV–injuring a cameraman.

Mkrtchian said that several newspapers–including Aib Fe–Haykakan Zhamanak–Aravot–and Iravunk have violated provisions of the Elections Code by campaigning on voting day.

Presidential candidate Artashes Gehgamian claimed that ballot boxes were sealed improperly; the Central Election Commission (CEC) press service refuted the claim insisting that the election process was going on normally without such problems.

The main opposition candidates accused incumbent Robert Kocharian of resorting to vote rigging–but vowed to keep the incumbent from clinging to power "at any cost."

In a joint statement signed three hours before the closure of polls–the candidates–Stepan Demirchian–Artashes Geghamian–Vazgen Manukian and Aram Karapetian–charged that the vote has already been marred by "massive irregularities and violence" that call into question its freedom and fairness.

TINY BOXES?

Local election commissions complained that the new clear ballot boxes are small and can not hold all ballots. Central Election Commission secretary Anna Alexanian said that commission members used rulers to push ballots down.

Representatives of the OSCE Yerevan office–on whose initiative the transparent boxes were brought to Armenia–say the boxes are able to fit 4,000 ballots while each polling station has no more than 2,000 voters.

VOTING ABROAD

The Central Election Commission (CEC) said 5,453 citizens of Armenia voted in 35 polling stations in 33 cities throughout the world.

Fifty six people voted in Abu Dhabi–196 in Athens–226 in Alma Ati–25 in Ashghabad–103 in Beirut–53 in Berlin–87 in Brussels–33 in Buenos Aires–47 in Bucharest–52 in Damascus–10 in Deli–68 in Tehran–84 in Tbilisi–27 in Geneva–40 in Cairo–130 in Kiev–400 in Los Angeles–15 in Beverly Hills–20 in London–110 in Minsk–1918 in Moscow–10 in New York–121 in Aleppo–18 in Rome–10 in Washington–41 in Warsaw–31 in Vienna–3 in Ottawa–42 in Beijing–152 in Paris–13 in Sao Paolo–1224 in Saint Petersburg–71 in Sofia–17 in Strasburg.

Preliminary reports revealed that Kocharian had swept Moscow–Iran–Ukraine and Alma Ati–and gained just over 50% of Georgian votes.


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