Yerevan, Armenia, 17 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Political tension is mounting today following the close of voting yesterday in Armenia's presidential election.
Armenia's Central Electoral Commission (CEC) says Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharian is leading, but is likely to face a run-off with his main challenger, communist-era leader Karen Demirchian.
The CEC said this afternoon that, with less than a third of the ballots counted (mainly in rural areas), Kocharian leads with 38 percent, well ahead of Demirchian's 27 percent. Two other major candidates, current Communist leader Sergei Badalian and National Democratic Union chairman Vazgen Manukian are trailing, with 17 and 10 percent respectively.
Past Armenia elections have been marred by irregularities, and international observers and election specialists have warned that electoral fraud is equally possible this time. They said that the result of yesterday's election will decide the direction Armenia will take, whether toward democracy or irresponsible authoritarianism.
Observers from an international team of about 180 people -- twice as many as in 1996 -- said yesterday that they hadn't seen any serious violations at polling stations.
Throughout the day, turnout was so high that lines formed outside polling stations. By mid afternoon, more than half the country's 2.5-million-member electorate reportedly had voted.
But opposition candidates charged widespread electoral fraud. Seven candidates, including Demirchian, Manukian and Badalian, issued a joint statement yesterday, an hour before the close of the voting, that the election can't be considered free and fair, regardless of its results.
In the statement's words: "The whole electoral process has proceeded in an atmosphere of widespread breaches of law, falsification and intimidation."
Opposition activists claim that in many districts the number of ballots cast exceeded the actual number of voters registered there.
The CEC and the Kocharian campaign issued denials of the charges, including reports of incredibly high turn-out figures in some provinces and complaints of suppression of opposition ballots.
Kocharian's spokesman said the opponents, by refusing to accept their defeat, are undermining Armenia's international prestige. The CEC said that it has received few formal complaints.
The opposition responds that it is now in the process of documenting fraud cases in order to present them coherently.
Observers are drawing parallels with the presidential election in September 1996, widely believed to have been rigged in favor of then-president Levon Ter-Petrossian. That troubled election caused a bitter stand-off between the authorities and opposition. The residual problems with legitimacy eventually cost Ter-Petrossian his post early last month.
In the present situation much depends on what steps Demirchian will take in the coming days. If he accepts the official results he will still have a chance to beat Kocharian in the second round. But he lacks well-organized grassroots structures that the Communists and the National Democratic Union have to head off irregularities.
This fact will prove more critical in the run-off, because Demirchian would singlehandedly face Kocharian and the government apparatus.
One of the options for Demirchian is to pull out of the race, demanding a re-run of the election. He probably does have sufficient popular support to mount a campaign of mass protests. In this case, Communist leader Badalian might be next in line for the run-off. The Communists have made an unexpectedly strong showing and may even outstrip Manukian.