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Armenia: Presidential Runoff To Decide Country's Future

Armenians go to the polls tomorrow for the second time in two weeks to decide who should govern their country for the next five years. The second round of the presidential election pits incumbent Robert Kocharian against Stepan Demirchian, a relatively inexperienced politician who has attracted the backing of virtually all major opposition groups. The unpredictable runoff follows two weeks of tense campaigning, which saw a series of antigovernment rallies and mass arrests of opposition activists. Though most of them have already been released from jail, there are lingering fears the upcoming vote will be tainted by fraud.

Yerevan, 4 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The two presidential finalists wrapped up their election campaigns last night with a televised face-to-face debate, the first of its kind in Armenia's history. The two-hour discussion must have given more than 2 million eligible voters enough food for thought ahead of tomorrow's runoff. Many of them have no doubt already made up their mind. There have been no nationwide opinion polls in Armenia since then, and few independent analysts dare to predict the outcome of the race.

For opposition leader Stepan Demirchian and his supporters, the key question is whether the runoff will be democratic or will again be marred by widespread irregularities reported during the first round. They insist that President Robert Kocharian stands no chance of winning a second term in office without fraud, a claim rejected by Kocharian.

The two contenders went into the unprecedented debate after simultaneously rallying tens of thousands of supporters in the capital Yerevan. They both expressed confidence in their victory.

Kocharian pleaded with Armenians to re-elect him by "a convincing margin that will not cause anyone's doubt." "We need a double victory, one of the components of which will be organized and transparent elections. That would also mean victory for the country," Kocharian said.

Speaking a few hundred meters away at about the same time, Demirchian was equally confident: "I am confident about my victory both in a [televised] debate and elections, because [the authorities] also know very well that in the event of a fair election, they will suffer a crushing defeat. On 5 March, we will make a choice between the establishment of a democracy and the reproduction of the junta."

The subsequent televised clash exposed profound personal differences between the two men. Kocharian's habitual stern look and recourse to numerous statistical data contrasted with Demirchian's casual and at times aggressive conduct.

The 48-year-old incumbent, helped by a panel of television journalists representing six largely pro-presidential channels, sought to portray his rival as an inexperienced politician lacking in-depth knowledge of economic affairs, foreign policy, and constitutional reform. He warned that a Demirchian win would be "dangerous" for Armenia.

Demirchian, 43, responded by accusing Kocharian of sponsoring electoral fraud and a corrupt government system. He avoided detailed answers to questions about his socioeconomic platform, repeatedly stressing that only a "legitimately elected president" can address problems facing the impoverished country.

The discussion also underscored the opposition candidate's physical resemblance to Karen Demirchian, his assassinated, popular father and Armenia's longtime communist-era leader. That similarity was a key factor behind the younger Demirchian's strong showing in the first round that forced Kocharian into a runoff.

Official results of the 19 February ballot gave Kocharian 49.5 percent of the vote, or slightly less than was needed for an outright victory. Demirchian finished in second place with just over 28 percent.

The Demirchian-led opposition rejected the official figures as fraudulent but chose to stay in the race, hoping to capitalize on the incumbent's worse-than-expected performance.

Although the television debate was mostly polite, Demirchian at times was barely able to contain his fury with the recent arrests of more than 150 opposition activists accused by the authorities of committing unspecified "acts of hooliganism" during the opposition rallies. Most of them were sentenced to up to 15 days in jail in closed trials during which they had no access to lawyers.

The authorities began releasing them on the weekend of 1-2 March after a strong domestic and international uproar. The unprecedented crackdown was condemned by major international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). In a strongly worded statement, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch charged that the mass arrests "appear to be a clumsy attempt to disable the opposition" ahead of the runoff.

Official Yerevan had already faced criticism for its handling of the first-round election, with a joint monitoring mission from the OSCE and PACE concluding that it fell short of international standards "in several key respects."

Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian admitted that the criticism dealt a serious blow to Armenia's democratic credentials. But like Kocharian, Oskanian defended the arrests, saying they were necessary for maintaining public order. He also claimed that both the authorities and the opposition resorted to voting irregularities on election day.

However, the OSCE observers have so far focused their criticism on the government side. The head of the OSCE team, Peter Eicher, reiterated yesterday that the authorities are doing little to punish those reportedly involved in vote rigging. Speaking to RFE/RL, he said: "I have expressed my concerns that with all of the violations we saw on election night, there hasn't been any clear effort to hold accountable those who were responsible for these violations. Some of the same individuals will still be in charge in some of the same polling stations where we saw some of the violations."

Eicher also said his monitoring mission found some "significant" discrepancies in the official results of the 19 February vote that have not yet been explained by Armenia's Central Election Commission. In more than a hundred polling stations, he said, "there were more ballots in the ballot box than were given to voters."

All this will likely deepen opposition distrust in the official results of the runoff, which are due to be published on 6 March. Some opposition leaders have already told supporters to prepare for a campaign of postelection street protests, something that would escalate the tense political situation in the country still further.