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Armenia: Top Parties Charge Election Fraud

Yerevan, 31 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As the vote count continues following yesterday's nationwide parliamentary elections in Armenia, leading parties say numerous irregularities call into question the vote's integrity.

The Miasnutyun alliance of Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and former Communist leader Karen Demirchian, the favorite to win the elections, joined the condemnations but said the irregularities, mostly related to incomplete voter lists, have not affected the results.

Tens of thousands of people were turned back from polling stations across the country after not finding their names on voter lists. Many of them flocked into courts demanding that they be allowed to vote. Reports say that in some electoral precincts in Yerevan, up to half the registered voters were unable to cast ballots. The courts promptly handed down hundreds of verdicts allowing people to participate, but appeared unable to cope with the influx of angry citizens.

A representative of the National Democratic Union (AZhM), a leading opposition group, described the mass inaccuracies as "blatant irregularities" that will, he said, "greatly affect" the outcome of the vote. The spokesman for another opposition bloc, Right and Accord, echoed the remarks, saying that the flawed voter lists were part of a premeditated government effort to manipulate results. Vigen Hakobian said the "terrible and widespread violations" represent what he described as a "new technology" of vote rigging. A Communist Party spokesman was even more outspoken, saying that there can be no talk about the vote's fairness.

Many opposition officials suggested that the Miasnutyun bloc is primarily to blame for irregularities.

But the bloc itself issued a statement blaming the widespread confusion on local authorities and demanded that "the appropriate bodies severely punish the guilty." Still, Andranik Markarian, a leading figure in Miasnutyun, downplayed opposition allegations, saying there had been "no violations that could affect vote results." In a comment to Armenian state television, he said that he regretted that "certain political forces want to cast shadow on the electoral process."

Demirchian, who is expected to bring the lion's share of Miasnutyun votes, suggested today that the polls had been more democratic than before.

Some 2.2 million voters were electing a new 131-strong parliament from 21 parties and blocs and several hundred individual candidates. A proper conduct of the elections is seen as essential for Armenia to restore its democratic image abroad, tarnished by election fraud reported by Western election monitors during previous polls.

The chairman of the Central Election Commission, Artak Sahradian, publicly apologized for the poor vote organization but said it will not affect the freedom and fairness of the elections. He attributed it what he called to the "bad work of state bureaucracy."

Witnesses said there were many instances of dead people included in the voter lists. A woman in one of Yerevan's constituencies said her father, who died 24 years ago, was in the list whereas she was not. Despite vigorous protests she was kept from voting.

About 1,500 lawsuits were reportedly filed to the district court in central Yerevan by voters saying they were not allowed to participate. The court building in the city of Abovian, 20 kilometers north of the capital, was overcrowded with angry people demanding they be allowed to vote.

Other major parties with government links also criticized the vote handling. A senior member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a key ally of President Robert Kocharian, called it a "disgrace" that casts considerable doubt on Kocharian's promise of a clean contest.

A spokeswoman for the Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party, rumored to be sponsored by Interior Minister Serzh Sarkisian, said "this terrible situation was not a result of mere technical mistakes." Another pro-Kocharian group, the Self-Determination Union (IM), demanded a vote re-run. In a letter to the Central Election Commission, IM leader Paruyr Hayrikian said the elections must be invalidated even before the ballot counting and tabulation.

Kocharian himself said earlier in the day that he is confident the new parliament "will reflect the real correlation of forces."

Very early returns, amounting to some three percent of ballots cast, had Miasnutyun polling about 50 percent of the vote under the party list system, which allocates 56 parliament seats. More comprehensive vote results are expected late today.

A 200-strong election observation mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is due to issue its preliminary report by that time.

Officials from the Council of Europe have said that democratic elections would pave the way for Armenia's membership in the human-rights body.

(Anush Dashtents, Armen Zakarian, and Ruzanna Khachatrian contributed to this report.)