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Armenia: Country Gears Up For Crucial Presidential Election

Armenians will go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new president. The four-week campaign for the elections officially ended yesterday, with incumbent Robert Kocharian and the eight other presidential candidates making final efforts to win over undecided voters. Kocharian, who has sought to emphasize the positive changes achieved in Armenia during his first five-year term, is hoping for a landslide re-election. But his main challengers insist that he cannot win an honest first-round victory, pointing to the larger-than-expected turnout at opposition campaign rallies.

Yerevan, 18 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Only a month ago, Armenian President Robert Kocharian did not look likely to face any serious competition in his drive to win a second term in office in tomorrow's presidential election. But four weeks of intense campaigning have left the fate of his re-election bid more uncertain.

Kocharian and top aides continue to say they expect to win outright in the first round of voting. But public disaffection with the current leadership has been increasingly visible over the past month of campaigning. The four main opposition candidates have drawn unexpectedly large and angry crowds across the country.

Tens of thousands of people rallied in the capital Yerevan on 16 February in support of Stepan Demirchian, the leader of the center-left People's Party of Armenia, who has emerged as the incumbent's number-one challenger.

It was the largest antigovernment demonstration in Armenia in years. For 43-year-old Demirchian -- who won particularly warm receptions in Armenia's rural areas -- it was also a welcome vote of confidence in his bid for the presidency. "Our meetings in the regions and in Yerevan today give me the right to state that the regime change has been achieved in people's minds and hearts. 19 February can only formalize the people's victory," he said.

The three other major opposition contenders -- Artashes Geghamian, Vazgen Manukian, and Aram Karapetian -- have also held large gatherings, though they aroused less public enthusiasm than Demirchian did.

Speaking to RFE/RL on the campaign trail, Manukian said support for the incumbent appears to be fading. "Traveling from one village to another, I see that Kocharian has very few supporters. For him to win a first-round victory without vote falsification seemed impossible to me before the campaign and seems even more impossible now," Manukian said.

But Kocharian and the more than a dozen political parties supporting him appear undaunted by the opposition's campaign achievements. Instead, the president has tried to capitalize on Armenia's slow but steady social and economic improvement.

Campaigning in Yerevan's blue-collar Shengavit district, Kocharian summed up his message to the voters: "Our chosen path is the right one. We just have to be a little patient and work more single-mindedly."

If Kocharian has a trump card, it is Armenia's accelerating economic growth, which hit a record-high rate of almost 13 percent last year, with exports alone surging by 50 percent. In a statement last week, The International Monetary Fund described the country's macroeconomic performance as "strong."

Kocharian said many Armenians impoverished by the 1991 Soviet collapse will finally feel the benefits of the growth within a few years if they allow the current government to continue its policies. He warned that a regime change would jeopardize further progress. "Five more years, and the country's face, standing, and quality will change. I call on you to build that country together [with me]. Thank you, and good luck to all of you," Kocharian said.

This argument for patience strikes a chord with quite a few Armenians. Like many other Yerevan residents, Hakob Muradian, is unemployed. But this 42-year-old said he does see light at the end of the tunnel. "[Kocharian] has proved that he largely keeps his word. I personally haven't seen any improvement in my life in the last five years. But I don't judge the situation in terms of my own plight, because all in all, progress is visible," Muradian said.

But most of the Armenians attending opposition rallies would strongly disagree. Opposition candidates have accused Kocharian of inflating official growth rates. They say the president has failed to protect the rule of law or rein in his inner circle, which is mired in corruption allegations.

Most opposition candidates have vague economic platforms and often make populist pledges. Geghamian in particular has promised cheap credit to stagnant Soviet-era industries and government subsidies for agriculture.

Demirchian, whose rallies have drawn the largest numbers of supporters, has made relatively few promises and is a weak orator. His appeal is largely due to the fact he is the son of Karen Demirchian, the man who ruled Soviet Armenia from 1974 to 1988. The senior Demirchian's era was one of relative prosperity, and many impoverished Armenians now look back on his rule with nostalgia.

Karen Demirchian narrowly lost to Kocharian in the 1998 presidential election, which was criticized by international monitors as failing to meet democratic standards. In October 1999, he and seven other top Armenian officials were assassinated during a shock terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament. Relatives of the victims still suspect Kocharian of masterminding the killings.

But in his speech at the Yerevan rally, the younger Demirchian said his motive was not personal revenge. "I am not taking revenge on anyone, because I am the son of a person who was forgiving even towards his enemies," he said.

Tall, with thick black hair, Demirchian bears a striking resemblance to his late father, in both his bearing and his voice. That similarity has earned him much of his current popularity. During his campaign appearances, Demirchian was greeted much as his father had been greeted in the past, with villagers slaughtering rams and bulls in his honor -- an ancient Caucasian custom in welcoming respected guests.

Nora Mkrtchian, a retired school teacher, is one of his numerous supporters. "I voted for his dad, Karen Demirchian, in 1998 and I will vote for Stepan Demirchian this time. We are fighting to make sure that the presidential post is held by a real Armenian [patriot]," she said.

Previous Armenian elections have been tainted by serious irregularities, and opposition leaders say they fear authorities will resort to fraud in an attempt to win a first-round victory for Kocharian. They have already accused the incumbent of bullying opposition supporters and illegally using government resources during the course of his campaign.

Kocharian insists he is interested in a free and fair vote because he believes his chances for victory are far higher than those of his challengers.

The past month has seen a dramatic rise in the Armenian public's interest in politics. Still, many Armenians say they find none of the candidates particularly impressive. As Ashot Galstian, a resident of a village in southern Armenia, put it: "Whoever gets a microphone today, gives only promises and nothing else. We hear lots of promises, but don't see any progress."

Tomorrow's vote will be observed by more than 250 monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The international legitimacy of the vote hinges to a large extent on their findings.