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Armenia: Kocharyan Set To Win Presidential Election

Yerevan, 31 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- According to preliminary results, Armenia's Prime Minister Robert Kocharyan is heading for a victory in the second round of the presidential election.

The latest figures from the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) show that with some two-thirds of all ballots counted, Kocharyan has so far polled 61 percent of the vote against 37 percent for Armenia's Soviet-era leader Karen Demirchyan.

Kocharyan is reported leading the polls in all of the country's provinces as well as the capital Yerevan, where he trailed the former Communist boss in the first round two weeks ago.

Kocharyan and Demirchyan advanced to a second round after coming in first and second, respectively, in a 12-person contest on March 16. That contest was plagued by voting irregularities.

Seven opposition candidates, including Demirchyan, jointly condemned that vote as not free and fair. Two of those candidates, National Democratic Union chairman Vazgen Manukian and Communist leader Sergei Badalian, represent major political groups. They threatened not to recognize the results of the run-off vote, a move that could mean renewed political tension and sharp polarization in Armenia.

But Kocharyan's assumption of the presidency is certain to go forward. He is backed by a coalition of leftist and nationalist parties, formerly in opposition to Ter-Petrossyan. The coalition includes the influential Dashnak party, re-legalized by Kocharyan in February. They provide him with a support base no matter how the election is handled.

In any case, the CEC reports no serious breaches of law, although the two rivals accused each other of slander and illegal agitation during the campaign. But Demirchyan campaign officials still refrain from comments to the media on the grounds that it has yet to review all vote returns. Demirchyan's reaction to the incoming results will prove crucial for the election's legitimacy.

Kocharyan won support of various parties because of his tough position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Kocharyan's opposition to concessions to Azerbaijan led to resignation last February of President Ter-Petrossyan, who had proposed those concessions. Kocharyan-led new Armenian leadership has rejected the internationally-brokered peace plan on Karabakh, which envisages a phased solution to the decade-long conflict.

It is likely that one of Kocharyan's first foreign policy steps as president will be to demand changes in the plan drafted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Minsk Group.

As far as domestic affairs are concerned, it remains to be seen whether a continuation of liberal economic policy, promised by Kocharyan, will face resistance from his leftist allies not very friendly toward free market. In any case, Armenia is likely to hold new parliamentary elections in several months from now.

There is little doubt that the public expects quick improvement of the standard of living. To satisfy these expectations will be one of the main challenges facing the new government.