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Turbulent Presidential Election 02/25/2003
Armenia Holds Turbulent
Presidential Election

By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier

Most political observers had predicted that the incumbent President of Armenia, Robert Kocharian, would be re-elected in the first round on February 19. He was expected to easily defeat Stepan Demirjian, the son of a popular Communist-era leader, as well as Ardashes Geghamian, the former Mayor of Yerevan, and six others. Kocharian needed over 50% of the more than 1.4 million votes cast in order to avoid a run-off on March 5th. He got only 49.8% of the votes, slightly less than what was required for first round victory, according to the preliminary results released by Armenia's Central Electoral Commission (CEC).

Unfortunately, the election became controversial long before a single ballot was cast. Those opposed to Pres. Kocharian began accusing him and his campaign of planning to rig the election. Campaign disputes are a common occurrence in most countries. Armenia is no exception. Even established democracies like the United States experience such difficulties, the most recent example of which was the contested ballots in Florida, following the Bush vs. Gore election in November 2000.

Even in the best of elections, losers often blame their opponents for their failure to win. But in most new states, fraudulent elections have become a way of life. Even when the candidates themselves are not involved in such deceitful practices, their supporters often take extraordinary measures to ensure the victory of their candidate. Expecting that their opponents would cheat, they feel obligated to cheat as well, thereby perpetuating this fraudulent vicious cycle.

When the CEC preliminarily announced last week that Pres. Kocharian had garnered 49.8% of the votes, followed by 28% for Demirjian and 17% for Geghamian, each of the candidates, not surprisingly, interpreted these figures in their own unique way. Kocharian's supporters said that the President had scored a smashing success against his opponents by getting as many votes as all the other eight candidates combined! They also indicated that they had ran a clean campaign, otherwise, they implied, their candidate would not have fallen a couple of thousand votes short of outright victory.

Demirjian's supporters, on the other hand, claimed that their candidate had in fact won as much as 70% of the votes rather than the announced 28%. They accused the President's side of forging as much as 500,000 votes. They said that even after that kind of massive fraud, the incumbent President still fell short of the needed 50%! The third candidate, Gaghamian, refused to endorse either one of the two leading candidates in the second round saying that he did not accept the legitimacy of the first round of the elections.

The delay by CEC in announcing the preliminary results also gave rise to varying interpretations. The CEC said that it was late in releasing the vote count due to snowstorms that had hampered the transfer of the ballot boxes from the remote regions. The opposition, however, interpreted the delay as an attempt to forge the results.

Even the international election monitors had different assessments about the election. The observers from the CIS countries said that they considered it "free, fair, transparent and legitimate." Most Western observers, however, said that the election was flawed. The OSCE Office for Democratic

Institutions and Human Rights said that even though the voting was "generally calm and well administered, ... the counting process was flawed and the long-term election process fell short of international standards in several key respects."

Between Feb. 20 and 23, three major rallies were held in the streets of Yerevan by Demirjian's supporters to protest the outcome of the election. Political groups and news organizations differed as to the number of the participants which was variously estimated at anywhere from 15,000 to 200,000! After last Friday's rally, small g roups of young men attacked several shops taking down Pres. Kocharian's campaign posters from store windows. Police reportedly arrested more than 100 Demirjian supporters. They were given 15-day prison sentences on charges of "hooliganism and
participation in unsanctioned demonstrations."

In response to an announcement by Demirjian's supporters that another rally would be held on Feb. 23 to ask for Pres. Kocharian's immediate resignation, the President went on Armenian National TV on Feb. 22 warning that all violators of law and order will be dealt with "in the severest manner" to protect the country's stability. The Mayor of Yerevan, Robert Nazarian, warned during a televised statement that no permission had been requested or granted for a public rally on Feb. 23. The Defense Ministry also issued a stern warning to the protesters calling on them to desist from further
unsanctioned rallies.

Despite these warnings and the presence of a large number of riot police, Demirjian's supporters defied the ban. Thousands of them marched in the streets of Yerevan, calling on the President to resign. Demirjian described the street marches as a meeting with his electors. Fortunately, no clashes took place between the protesters and the police. Several participants, however, were arrested the next day. While it is natural to have a very vigorous campaign, both the authorities and the opposition should pursue their political objectives without resorting to extreme measures that could only destabilize the country. It is unfortunate that the court system in Armenia does not enjoy the required
credibility to deal with such disputes in a legal and fair manner.

The citizens of Armenia are entitled to cast freely their votes for the presidential candidate of their choice. No one should infringe upon that right. After the run-off election of March 5th, when all is said and done, one of the two candidates will end up occupying the presidential seat. No matter who that person is, the people of Armenia will continue to need our support. Armenia's survival transcends the interests of any one individual or organization!
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