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Armenia: Demirchian's Unity Alliance Set To Win Elections

Yerevan, 1 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Miasnutyun (Unity) alliance of Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and former Communist leader Karen Demirchian appears headed for a landslide victory in Armenia's parliamentary elections.

Preliminary figures released last night by the official Central Election Commission (CEC) show that Miasnutyun will have by far the biggest group in the new Armenian parliament, but will nevertheless fall short of an absolute majority of seats. The figures are based on nationwide results from most polling stations.

Sunday's voting was marred by widespread errors in voter lists. Tens of thousands of people were turned away from polling stations across the country, where their names were apparently not registered. Several of the parties that competed in the election have contested its fairness, saying the inaccuracies in the voters' lists call the integrity of the poll into severe question. But none of them have yet to announce if the official results are acceptable or not.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose 200 observers monitored the balloting, said yesterday the vote was an "improvement over prior elections," which it had criticized for not meeting democratic standards. But the OSCE also voiced what it called "serious concerns" over irregularities reported this time.

According to the CEC's preliminary tally, Miasnutyun will have at least 61 seats in the 131-member National Assembly. The Unity alliance received 41 percent of the vote under the party list system which allocates 56 seats. In addition, Miasnutyun candidates won about 35 out 75 seats contested in single-candidate constituencies.

The Unity alliance draws most of its support from the ex-Communist Demirchian's popularity among many Armenians who became impoverished after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his strongly populist campaign rhetoric, the 66-year-old Demirchian, who ruled Soviet Armenia from 1974 to 1988, pledged to revive the nation's stagnating industry.

Armenia's hard-line Communist Party, which came in second in the balloting, won close to 12 percent under the proportional, that is, party-list system. It looks set to win about 10 seats,

Two nationalist groups came in third and fourth, the Dashnaktsutyun party and the Right and Accord bloc. Each is likely to get eight seats. Right and Accord, backed by the commander of Nagorno-Karabakh's armed forces, provided the biggest election surprise, gaining roughly 7 percent of the votes.

The National Democratic Union (AZhM) and Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party are also likely to enter the parliament, each with five seats each. Orinats Yerkir is widely rumored to have close ties with the influential Interior Minister Serzh Sarkisian (no relation to Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian). The AZhM, a major opposition force led by former prime minister Vazgen Manukian, performed worse than expected, struggling to clear the five percent threshold set for party lists.

Most of these parties strongly condemned the voter-list errors, alleging that their respective electorates were deliberately barred from casting ballots. They says they are waiting for final results before deciding whether to accept them. Three other smaller parties have demanded a new election, saying that a considerable part of the population was excluded from the voting process.

According to the Armenian Ministry of Justice, during the course of voting Sunday, courts handed down a total of 21,000 verdicts that allowing many angry citizens to vote. But most of those who were not listed are believed to have been unable to vote. Election officials have admitted that the flawed lists were one of the reasons for a relatively low voter turnout, between 50 and 52 percent of the electorate.

Yesterday's OSCE's preliminary statement, due to be followed by a second report after full results are announced, expressed "doubts about the accuracy of voter lists." It also cited the presence of what it called "unauthorized persons in polling stations and numerous technical and organizational shortcomings." It stated, too, that a delay in the release of preliminary vote results "undermines the transparency of and confidence in the process."

The OSCE statement concluded: "In general, the 1999 Armenian parliamentary elections represent a relevant step towards compliance with OSCE commitments." But when asked if the poll had met OSCE standards, the head of the organization's monitoring mission (Tone Tingsgaard), replied: "Not quite."

All Armenian parties and blocs except Miasnutyun fared very poorly in the more important single-candidate constituencies, especially those outside the capital Yerevan. While falling short of an outright majority, Demirchian Vazgen Sarkisian's Union alliance probably can count on the backing of at least 25 ostensibly independent deputies, most of whom are wealthy businessman. The businessmen are likely to side with the stronger force in parliament on important issues.

Armenia's constitution severely limits the legislature's powers, with the president appointing the government. But the parliament can unseat it with a vote of no- confidence.

The Miasnutyun win is expected to trigger a sweeping reshuffle of the current liberal Prime Minister Armen Darpinian's cabinet. According to some reports, Darpinian could be replaced by either Demirchian or Defense Minister Sarkisian. During the campaign, Miasnutyun called for a major shift away from the policy of economic liberalization pursued by successive Armenian cabinets since 1994.

Some analysts say the strengthening of the defense minister's positions will also pose a serious challenge to the power of President Robert Kocharian. But the electoral results are not likely to make any change in Armenia's position on how to end the long conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. On that issue, the views expressed by most candidates did not differ significantly from those of Kocharian.

The Armenian government and Karabakh Armenians have accepted the OSCE's most recent peace plan for the enclave, while Baku has rejected it.

The handling of the elections was seen as critical to Yerevan's efforts to reverse the country's tarnished democratic image abroad. Officials from the Council of Europe have repeatedly said that the holding of full and fair democratic elections would facilitate Armenia's entry into the 41-state organization, which promotes democratic values and human rights across the continent.