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Armenia: Presidential Poll Sparks New Crisis Of Legitimacy

Armenia's controversial presidential election has left the country in a severe political crisis. Incumbent Robert Kocharian has been declared the official winner in a vote that Armenian opposition politicians and international observers have criticized as undemocratic. Claiming widespread fraud, opposition challenger Stepan Demirchian has called for new elections and vowed to keep up pressure on the authorities with a series of street protests. Political tensions are expected to remain high for weeks to come.

Yerevan, 12 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It is the third consecutive presidential election in Armenia marred by domestic and international fraud allegations.

The vote, held in two rounds on 19 February and 5 March, followed a pattern that is all too familiar to Armenians, with authorities declaring the incumbent's victory, the opposition challenging the results, and Western observers reporting serious irregularities. It also appeared to indicate that Armenia's two-year membership on the Council of Europe has had little impact on its democratization prospects.

President Robert Kocharian, however, appeared undaunted by the continuing opposition protests and strong international criticism of his controversial reelection. Meeting with reporters today, Kocharian downplayed criticism by election observers that last week's presidential runoff fell short of international standards.

He said he will not feel constrained by such negative assessments during his second five-year term in office: "Do not think that I could be, so to speak, a president with complexes and work with complexes. That has never been and will never be the case."

Kocharian claimed that the most recent election marked an improvement over the previous one in 1998. International observers, he said, simply applied stricter democratic standards this time around.

The opposition presidential candidate, Stepan Demirchian of the People's Party of Armenia, was equally defiant yesterday in his rejection of the final official results that showed Kocharian winning by a landslide: "The official final results have nothing to do with the real choice made by the people, and those results cannot be accepted by me. I will appeal them at the Constitutional Court."

Demirchian was speaking before some 20,000 supporters that again rallied in Yerevan to denounce what they see as a stolen election.

The unsanctioned rally took place shortly after the Central Election Commission formalized the 48-year-old incumbent's victory. According to its final tally, Kocharian won 67.5 percent of the vote to Demirchian's 32.5 percent.

The commission was immediately accused by Demirchian and his supporters of "sabotaging" opposition attempts to recount ballots and investigate reported instances of ballot-box stuffing and other violations. The opposition candidate's proxies complained that vote recounts took place in only 20 of some 400 polling stations where they claim vote rigging was particularly blatant.

In a report last week, a joint monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe gave more weight to the opposition allegations. The observers singled out "widespread" ballot-box stuffing as the most common form of irregularity during the voting and counting processes.

They also pointed to "significant shortcomings" before the 5 March runoff, such as the arrests of more than 200 opposition activists and a "lack of transparency" in the counting and tabulation of first-round vote results.

Kocharian's powerful campaign manager, Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, was quick to reject the criticism. He argued the 200 or so international observers reported vote-rigging from only 13 percent of about 800 places across Armenia they visited on voting day.

But that, according to the American head of the OSCE's monitoring team, Peter Eicher, is "quite a high figure for an election," given the fact that the observers stayed for less than an hour at any one polling station.

In the chorus of international disapproval that has followed the disputed runoff, there was at least one voice which the Kocharian administration cannot discount easily. The United States expressed last week its "deep disappointment" with the Armenian authorities' handling of the vote, saying that they "missed an important opportunity to advance democratization by holding a credible election."

The U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Ordway, today repeated the criticism: "Our concern is with the integrity of the process. It was clear to us that a large number of irregularities, principally ballot-stuffing, results in a process which does not meet international standards and therefore makes it difficult for us to say that we have confidence in the outcome."

The Council of Europe also strongly criticized the Armenian government. The president of the Strasbourg-based organization's Parliamentary Assembly, Peter Schieder, has made it clear that the alleged electoral fraud "cannot remain without [international] consequences" for Yerevan.

Meanwhile, the Armenian opposition is expected to file an appeal to the Constitutional Court on 14 March. But throughout its seven-year existence, the court has rarely challenged the executive authority and is therefore unlikely to overturn the election results that allow Kocharian to stay in power for five more years. Mindful of that, some opposition leaders have already announced that they will eventually take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Armenia seems to have avoided the kind of postelection violence that had led its previous president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, to order tanks into the streets of the capital in the wake of a similarly troubled presidential ballot in 1996.

Still, Demirchian and 14 other opposition parties grouped around him have pledged to continue their regular demonstrations that cause gridlocks in much of central Yerevan. Tensions could mount further during Kocharian's inauguration, expected on 9 April.

The Demirchian-led opposition forces are also preparing for another showdown -- parliamentary elections scheduled for 25 May. They are currently considering forming a single electoral alliance against the regime. Similar talks are underway among political groups supporting Kocharian.

All of which suggests that the political situation in Armenia will not be calm for some time to come.