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Armenia: Presidential Race Turns Into Bitter Standoff

Political tensions are growing in Armenia in the run-up to the second round on 5 March of a bitterly contested presidential election that has raised the prospect of a regime change. Stepan Demirchian, the main opposition candidate, is upping the stakes in his bid to oust incumbent Robert Kocharian. Demirchian and his opposition allies are keeping up pressure on the authorities by rallying large numbers of supporters in the capital Yerevan. They hope that the street protests will prevent a repeat of alleged widespread fraud that marred the first round of voting on 19 February. Kocharian, meanwhile, has warned that the opposition's actions are illegal and has threatened to crack down on its leaders.

Yerevan, 24 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After years of languishing on the sidelines of Armenia's political arena, leading opposition groups are sensing a real chance to come to power. Buoyed by President Robert Kocharian's failure to win a second term in office outright, scores of opposition supporters defied a government ban yesterday to hold yet another big rally in support of Stepan Demirchian, the man who will face Kocharian in a showdown runoff on 5 March.

Demirchian, flanked by other prominent opposition figures, was again given a hero's welcome by the enthusiastic crowd at the rally as he declared: "They should realize that they have infringed on the people's dignity. That's why we gather here. The people are demanding justice."

The rally went ahead despite not being sanctioned by the city authorities. Kocharian on 22 February accused the opposition of disrupting "public order" and threatened to take "very serious and strict" measures against its leaders.

The warning came after dozens of opposition activists were arrested following a previous unsanctioned protest on 21 February. Most of them were promptly sentenced to 15 days in jail for "acts of hooliganism." Their brief trials were reportedly held behind closed doors.

The opposition's response to the arrests was defiant. An estimated 40,000 people marched through Yerevan to demand the release of the detainees. One speaker at the rally said that all orders issued by Kocharian are "illegal" and that the law-enforcement authorities must therefore disobey them.

Like many in the crowd, Kristine Matevosian, 24, agreed with that assessment: "I was here yesterday, and will keep coming [to the demonstrations] until Kocharian resigns."

The key issue behind the escalating standoff is the result of the first-round election held on 19 February. According to preliminary official figures, Kocharian won just under 50 percent of the vote, failing to pass the threshold required to win outright. Demirchian finished in second place with about 28 percent. Another opposition contender, Artashes Geghamian, came in third with over 17 percent.

Both Demirchian and Geghamian claim to have fared much better, with the latter demanding that the vote be scrapped altogether.

Two other opposition candidates, Vazgen Manukian and Aram Karapetian, also claim to have been robbed of many votes. The official figures gave Manukian, a veteran politician who nearly became Armenia's president in 1996, less than 1 percent of the vote. The two men were quick to endorse Demirchian.

As Manukian put it a rally last week: "We will stand by Stepan Demirchian and will fight to the end. Our people will win because what Robert Kocharian did insulted our dignity. He slapped us in the face."

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe also criticized the authorities' handling of the election. In a joint report, the monitoring mission said "the counting process was flawed and that the long-term electoral process fell short of international standards in several key respects." It singled out cases of ballot-box stuffing among reported irregularities.

Armenia's Central Election Commission, meanwhile, has delayed the publication of the final first-round results, citing lawsuits filed against it by the Demirchian campaign. But the latter accuses the commission of thwarting opposition efforts to recount ballots.

Kocharian and his allies insist that the vote was largely democratic and deny the opposition allegations of vote rigging. Speaking on state television on the weekend, Kocharian said he is "satisfied" with the official results of the first round and believes he will sweep to a "convincing victory."

Still, many local observers view the runoff as a serious setback for the 48-year-old incumbent who looked as strong as ever only a month ago. His campaign manager, Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, admitted that the presidential team made some mistakes and will have to change its campaign strategy.

With virtually all opposition forces rallying around Demirchian, the Armenian president will be facing an uphill battle for political survival on 5 March. Both Demirchian and Kocharian are already courting third-placed Geghamian, who may be holding the key to the presidency. But Geghamian has so far avoided endorsing either man.

Demirchian, in the meantime, is supremely confident of his victory. His remarks at the opposition rallies sound like an acceptance speech of a president-elect: "We will formalize the people's victory by legal means.... We will establish the rule of law, follow the path of public solidarity, and build our country."

The 43-year-old Demirchian, the son of Armenias communist-era boss Karen Demirchian, has been notoriously vague about what he would do once in power. As the local newspaper "Aravot" put it, Demirchian "did not express a single cohesive thought" during the election campaign.

The elder Demirchian narrowly lost to Kocharian in the 1998 presidential election, a vote that was also criticized by international monitors. He was killed in a 1999 shooting in the Armenian parliament.

Tall and with thick black hair, the younger Demirchian bears a striking resemblance to his father, something that has so far been his main trump card. "Armenia has pioneered political cloning," a Western diplomat said jokingly.

The Kocharian camp is now trying to highlight the opposition candidate's lack of political experience and poor oratorical skills. It has invited Demirchian to an unprecedented live televised debate with Kocharian.

The state-run Armenian Public Television and major private channels supporting the incumbent are already pouncing on Demirchian's weak points, seeking to portray him as an immature politician who is highly dependent on his more radical entourage.

It remains to be seen how effective these tactics will be. As tensions rise, more important is the question of how the authorities will handle the second-round vote.