YEREVAN (Reuters–Noyan Tapan)–Armenia’s voted for a new president Monday in a closely watched election–the final outcome of which–analysist suggest–will be determined in a run-off vote.
Sources at campaign headquarters and electoral districts throughout Armenia were busy counting ballots at press time–and while official results were not available–a run off is predicted between Armenia’s Acting President and Prime Minister Robert Kocharian and ex-communist leader Karen Demirchian.
However–these results could change as a final count emerges in the elections.
The polls closed at 10 pm–and the Central Electoral Commission said about 60 percent of the eligible 2.2 million voters had cast ballots by the end of voting.
Yet even before voting had ended–that image was under fire again as the two front-runners traded accusations about how the election was being run in their poor but strategically important country bordering Georgia–Azerbaijan–Turkey and Iran.
"A falsification machine is operating in the country," said Karen Demirchyan–Armenia’s Soviet-era communist leader who led most pre-election opinion polls after making a startling comeback from a decade of political obscurity.
"If we do not have a legitimate president this time–then the current regime we are all sick to death of will continue in power," he said in a late-night televised address–referring to Kocharian.
Kocharian–Demirchian’s main rival–dismissed the charges.
"Some of the candidates’ nerves are breaking down and they are slinging mud. I’m not going to do that," he told reporters after casting his vote in the election–which is being followed across the region because of oil riches in the nearby Caspian Sea basin as well as concerns for democracy.
"I’m not idealizing the situation," Kocharian said. "Armenia does not have a decades-long tradition of holding elections and there might be some violations–although I don’t think that it is possible to win or lose using fraud."
Spokesmen for both Demirchian and Kocharian said they had received complaints about unspecified minor irregularities.
Despite scattered reports of irregularities–international observers said the poll had been proceeding smoothly in general.
At 9 p.m. local time–the Central Electoral Committee received a joint statement by five presidential candidates–Sergey Badalian–Karen Demirchian–Paruyr Hairikian–Vazgen Manoukian and David Shahnazarian–alleging irregularities and fraud in the elections–while international observers charged the elections were significant steps toward "fair and transparent" elections.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe indicated that there were marked improvemen’s in Monday’s elections–as compared to the 1996 presidential polls–with no major breaches or incidents reported–stated the Armenian Assembly of America.
The announcement by the five candidates stated that "The entire election process indicates that the polls were held in an atmosphere of numerous threats–violations and vote-rigging. We state that the early presidential election–irrespective of its returns–can’t be recognized free and fair."
Democratic Party of Armenia chairman and a presidential hopeful Aram Sargsian stated that he was not invited to take part in the joint meeting of presidential candidates which released the announcement–simply because "they know that I do not play their games."
"It’s been a mixed bag. In some places things are going very smoothly and in others we’ve seen chaos (in voting procedures)," said an observer with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Most voters interviewed said they were voting for Kocharyan or Demirchyan.
"Demirchian built this country. Kocharian and the others have done nothing but destroy it," said Raia–a 62-year-old Yerevan housewife–outside one polling station.
"Demirchian represents the past. We cannot bring the past back," retorted Angela Davidyan–a 45-year-old schoolteacher. "Kocharian is young–energetic–and he is the only alternative."
Armenia’s 1995 parliamentary election and a 1996 presidential vote were tainted by fraud which has given the mountainous republic of nearly four million people a tarnished reputation abroad.
On Monday–voters lined up outside polling stations in the capital Yerevan not long after they opened at 8 am.
The vote seemed to be proceeding smoothly in Yerevan and officials described the turnout as high.
First results are not expected until Tuesday.
Two hundred foreign observers are monitoring voting–which was taking place at 1,597 polling stations. More than 12,000 people from the Armenian Diaspora are eligible to vote.
Two polling stations opened early Monday in Armenia’s Embassy in Moscow.
Central Electoral Commission representative to Moscow Gagik Gabrielian reported that more than 5,000 Armenia’s have already voted at the Embassy and the number is expected to double. Voter turnout may be affected by the fact that that March 16 is a working day in Russia.
Gabrielian said that the voting in Moscow will be monitored by representatives of Robert Kocharian–Karen Demirchian–Vazgen Manoukian and Aram Sargssian. As of 9:30 am representatives of the other presidential candidates had not arrived.
Gabrielian reported that the presidential election and voting in Moscow is being covered by local television.
The observers–including teams from the OSCE and the Council of Europe–said they will be playing particular attention to the count–which started late on Monday.
They say It was in the counting that fraud occurred in the 1996 vote–which re-elected Levon Ter-Petrosyan who later used tanks and troops to quell street protests sparked by critics who said he had rigged the election. He denied the charge.
Ter-Petrosyan was forced to resign last month by opponents–including Kocharyan–who were furious at concessions he offered to Azerbaijan to end the decade-long struggle between the two neighbors over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The conflict–in which at least 20,000 people died before a 1994 truce–is in deadlock and looms ominously over $30 billion in contracts foreign companies have signed to invest in Azerbaijan’s offshore Caspian oil fields.