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Armenia: Voting Under Way In Presidential Race

Yerevan, 19 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Voting began this morning in Armenia's showdown presidential election, with incumbent Robert Kocharian and his main challenger each expressing optimism about his chance of victory.

Voter turnout appeared high despite a heavy snowfall that began last night and carried into today. Kocharian, speaking to reporters after casting his ballot in Yerevan, sounded confident of re-election. He said he would not have joined the race without making "appropriate calculations" of his popularity. Kocharian added that he will spend the remainder of the day resting, following a one-month election campaign.

A close Kocharian associate, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, said he expected the president to win a clear first-round victory. Fifty percent plus one vote is needed for a outright win in the first round. But Kocharian's most popular rival, Stepan Demirchian, insisted that his chances of a first-round win are "absolutely realistic."

Another leading opposition contender, Artashes Geghamian, also predicted defeat for Kocharian. Geghamian said he believed the election would likely go into a runoff between himself and Demirchian. Runoffs are tentatively scheduled for 5 March.

The opposition candidates again claimed that Kocharian and his government allies will try to manipulate the vote. The last presidential election, in 1998, was marred by allegations of procedural violations.

"Nobody is so naive as to think that these authorities can hold elections without irregularities," Demirchian said. "But we will do everything to prevent those irregularities."

Demirchian cited a newspaper report about hundreds of ballots allegedly distributed by the Kocharian campaign in violation of the law.

According to the pro-opposition daily "Haykakan Zhamanak," an unidentified man visited the offices of the opposition Republic Party last night with 500 ballots, which he said were given to him by one of Kocharian's campaign offices with the aim of stuffing them into ballot boxes. The paper carried a front-page picture of those ballots.

A senior member of the Republic Party, which supports Demirchian, claimed today that proxies for opposition candidates disrupted an attempt at ballot-box stuffing in the city of Abovian shortly after the polls opened at 8 a.m. local time.

This information could not be immediately confirmed from independent sources.

Armenia's Central Election Commission said it received a similar report from Yerevan's Davitashen district but said it turned out to be false.

In another city district, Arabkir, an RFE/RL correspondent saw a thick stack of ballots folded together inside the transparent plastic ballot box. Opposition proxies there suggested the ballots might have been illegally cast by a single person.

Kocharian, meanwhile, again pledged to ensure that the election would be free of procedural violations. He said international monitors and journalists are free to observe closely both the course of the voting and the vote count. "You are able to tour polling stations. We have done everything possible," he said. "I think the elections will really be free and fair," Kocharian said.

The Central Election Commission said more than 110,000 people across the country cast their ballots during the first three hours of voting. Approximately 2.3 million Armenians are eligible to vote. Nine candidates are running for the Armenian presidency.