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Armenia: Heavy Turnout Reported In Presidential Election

Yerevan, 16 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Turnout is reported heavy in Armenia's presidential election today -- both in the capital, Yerevan, and in various parts of the country.

RFE/RL correspondents report voters began lining up at polling stations as they opened at 0800 local time. Polls close at 2200 local time.

Twelve candidates are running, but only three: current Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharian, Armenia's Soviet-era leader Karen Demirchian and the opposition National Democratic Union chairman Vazgen Manukian -- are seen as the real contenders.

Kocharian dismissed allegations that many local officials have been using their influence to secure his victory. He did not rule out some minor irregularities, however, citing lack of "democratic traditions" in Armenia.

Demirchian, for his part, said he is standing in the election to "serve my people. I have voted for Armenia and I believe in its bright future," he said. He refused to comment on reports of a possible alliance with Kocharian ahead of an anticipated second-round vote.

Demirchian was Armenia's Communist Party first secretary from 1974 to 1988. Opinion surveys suggest a large number of Armenians -- adversely affected by the post-Soviet economic decline -- perceive Demirchian's previous administration as a period of stability and relative prosperity.

Demirchian has consistently gained in popularity during the campaign, pledging industrial recovery and new jobs.

Opinion polls are notoriously misleading in Armenia but political analysts predict Demirchian will make a very strong showing.

On the streets of Yerevan today, RFE/RL correspondent found a most pro-Demirchian mood.

"I have voted for Demirchian because he is a very experienced, hard-working and thoughful leader. When he was in power I had a job and decent salary. I have been forced to sell many of my valuable things to get by in recent years," said Amalia Makarian, a 64-year-old woman. Her remarks were typical of those supporting Demirchian.

Another typical opinion was that Demirchian "understands people."

However, one pensioner told RFE/RL he does not believe the former Communist boss will successfully run the country under a market economy. Another voter, a man in his mid 30s, said he does not trust any of the candidates, but came to the polling station to specifically vote against Demirchian.

A pair of pensioners said they voted for Kocharian, because they believe he will combat corruption and favoritism.

A young unemployed man, who was recently demobilized from the military, said he voted for Manukian, because he expects from the former prime minister "improvement in all spheres of life."

Preliminary results are expected tomorrow.

The Central Election Commission has promised promptly to provide the media with information, as it comes from the regions.

Today's election was called in early February, just after President Levon Ter-Petrossyan resigned, after failing to muster support for what was viewed as a conciliatory policy on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.