Yerevan Rallies Fueled by Opposition to Run offs

YEREVAN (Combined Sources)-Thousands of pro-Demirchian protesters massed in the Armenian capital on Friday and demanded a recount in a presidential election in which veteran leader Robert Kocharian opened up a big lead but fell just short of outright victory. Demirchian received 27.7% of the vote.

The opposition is accusing Kocharian of rigging the elections. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe said they found less evidence of fraud than in previous elections–while CIS monitors reported that the elections were held in accordance with Armenia’s electoral law and democratic standards–"in a transparent–free–legitimate and open environment."

The chairman of Armenian parliament Armen Khachatrian joined a chorus of politicians and a portion of observers who said that the first round of February 19 presidential election " was generally held in free and transparent" environment.

"There was an environment for free expression of differing opinions and viewpoints; each pronounced word reached the people."

Khachatrian also commended the incumbent president Kocharian for his conduct "for not allowing or resorting to falsification and vote fraud;" after all–an additional 0.2 percent of popular vote would have seen his reelection.

Post-Soviet Armenia has a history of contested elections–however.

President Levon Ter-Petrosian sent tanks into the streets and rounded up dozens of opponents in 1996 when the opposition accused him of falsifying his bid for re-election. This time around–the opposition appears to have taken to the streets.

Commenting on the rallies–Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian said–"I don’t see any problems in rallies-if they are held within the framework of the law. But if they are held outside of the law–this is the job of the law-enforcement bodies."

He added that if the incumbent president is elected in the runoff as a result of free and fair elections–he will hold full rights to lead the country. "If the state can’t protect constitutional order–then such a country doesn’t have the right to exist," he said.

Seeking a second five-year term–Kocharian was credited with 49.8 percent of the vote in Wednesday’s poll–just short of the 50 percent needed for a first-round win.

Third-placed opposition candidate–former Yerevan Mayor Artashes Geghamyan–scored 17 percent and is now critical to the outcome. He has yet to announce his backing for either finalist.

Demirchian is the son of Soviet-era leader Karen Demirchian–himself defeated by Kocharian when he swept to power in 1998.

Demirchian said he would wait until Saturday’s official declaration of first-round results before determining his next move. A run-off pitting him against Kocharian is set for March 5.

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