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Armenia: Opposition Hopeful Ballot Will Go To Second Round

Yerevan, 20 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Three days before Armenia's presidential elections, the opposition in Yerevan is in an optimistic mood.

The general perception of political observers, journalists and some ordinary people is that the rating of former prime minister and main opposition candidate Vazgen Manukian has substantially increased in the past two weeks .

This has led to expectations of a second ballot which could, conceivably, lead to an upset against the incumbent President Levon Ter-Petrossian. There is also a growing perception that the ruling party is showing signs of panic at this unexpected turn of political fortunes.

In recent months, few have doubted that the president could win reelection by a wide margin. The basis of this perception was the weak and disunited state of opposition parties, and the lessons of the 1995 parliamentary elections in which authorities appear to have used various suspect methods to secure a large majority in parliament.

At that time, foreign observers judged the elections as generally free but unfair. Since then, living conditions in Yerevan have noticeably improved and the government's economic indicators have pointed toward progress. This also contributed to the feeling that claims of success on the domestic front by Ter-Petrossian would insure him a respectable first ballot win.

Things are no longer so certain.

According to an RFE/RL poll taken in late August, the president had a commanding lead of 49 percent to Manukian's 15 percent. But three other opposition candidates have withdrawn from the race and thrown their support behind Manukian, giving him a boost as well as campaign assistance. And yesterday, thousands of people were reported to have turned out to hear Manukian denounce Ter-Petrossian's rule.

The incumbent president is stressing three themes in his campaign. Above all, it emphasizes military successes achieved against Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The other theme is the lack of internal strife and lawlessness that have often characterized life in post-Soviet Georgia and Azerbaijan. And the third is an improvement of socio-economic conditions. He associates all three with his presidency.

Manukian counters that successes in the conflict with Azerbaijan have been achieved through sacrifices by the people of both Armenia and Northern Karabakh rather than the president's efforts. Manukian also stresses his own contribution as defense minister in the critical period from September 1992 to August 1993.

In terms of maintaining stability, the opposition argues that they are responsible political leaders unlikely to make moves that could create any internal conflicts. In recent days the government has alluded to a danger of civil strife if Manukian wins. But Manukian tries to turn these remarks into his favor by warning voters of scare tactics by the presidential camp.

On the issue of socio-economic progress, the main opposition candidate is promising an increase in wages along with a better and cleaner government.

The president has mocked such promises by telling voters that the economy will go bankrupt if wages are increased. Manukian, in turn, challenged the President yesterday to be specific in his pronouncements and not just allude to "general progress."

There are still many people who believe that the president will win in the first round -- albeit, by a thinner margin. Others believe that the president's camp has already accepted the reality of a second ballot and will work to insure a victory then.