Opposition allegations mar Armenian presidential vote – Summary

Earthtimes, UK
Feb 19 2008

Opposition allegations mar Armenian presidential vote – Summary
Posted : Tue, 19 Feb 2008 22:34:20 GMT
Author : DPA

Yerevan, Armenia – Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian led in early vote
tallies in Armenia’s presidential elections Tuesday, but it was
unclear if he would make the 50-per-cent barrier needed to win
outright. With just over 36 per cent of the votes counted six hours
after polls closed, Sarkisian lead the race with 41 per cent of the
vote, according to the Central Election Committee (CEC).

But the official results put Sarkisian, the favoured successor of
incumbent Robert Kocharian, under the 50 per cent needed to avoid a
run-off with the second-place finisher after a bitterly contested
election campaign.

Local media widely announced Sarkisian’s outright victory at the
close of voting Tuesday based on a survey by British pollster
Populus, which showed Sarkisian winning with 57.1 per cent, provoking
opposition cries of vote rigging.

The CEC reported a high 69.26-per-cent voter turnout in the small
Caucasus state of 3.2 million.

Sarkisian’s fiercest challenger, former president Levon
Ter-Petrosian, accused the government of "mass bribing, ballot
stuffing, voting list falsifications" and a slew of other violations,
including the beating and kidnapping of his supporters.

"Many dirty things are happening. There have been many concrete
violations," Ter-Petrosian told journalists after casting his ballot
Tuesday afternoon.

Ter-Petrosian was running even with another opposition candidate,
Artur Baghdasarian. Both had 10-12 per cent of the vote, according to
the CEC’s preliminary results.

Ter-Petrosian, who made a dramatic comeback after his resignation in
1998, pledged to hold a protest rally in Yerevan on Wednesday,
raising fears of mass post-election protests.

The opposition candidate’s final campaign rally Saturday drew a crowd
of about 30,000 people to the capital Yerevan’s theatre square.

Earlier in the day, Sarkisian downplayed the chances of a run-off
election.

"I believe that the most important thing is not the number of
rounds," he told reporters. It is "to end the elections today and to
have a lot of trust in the election results."

Sarkisian is expected to keep the line set by Kocharian during his
decade at the helm, particularly his hawkish foreign stance and close
strategic partnership with Russia.

Armenia has emerged as a strategically important region, lying as it
does along gas routes from the energy-rich Caspian Sea region to
Europe and being a close partner of Iran. Western powers fear
instability in the region could disrupt gas routes.

Facing blockades along two of its borders over a territorial conflict
with Azerbaijan, and with Turkey angered by Yerevan’s lobbying for
international recognition of the killings of Armenians by the Turkish
Ottoman Empire as genocide, Armenia is reliant both on Western and
Russian aid.

But a current construction boom and steady growth in the small
post-Soviet state were seen as the main factors in favor of the
powerful prime minister, whose Republican Party of Armenia swept
recent parliamentary elections in the country.

Outside his polling station Tuesday Sarkisian said, "The government
was formed nine months ago and we have since then achieved good
results. I do not know of any need for essential changes."

His words were echoed by voters outside polling stations in the
capital.

Vladimir, a 75-year-old pensioner, said simply he was voting to "keep
the old power, to keep stability," while Arar, an architect in his
30s, pointed to cranes towering over the street: "The country is
growing."

Kocharian, 53, who is barred from a third term, is expected to retain
power, but when asked about his future plans Tuesday said "that is
the biggest secret in Armenia today."

Despite progress, over a quarter of Armenians live below the poverty
line and widespread perceptions of corruption dog the top candidates.

"Our choice is between bad and worse," was a phrase repeated by
voters on election day.

Such sentiment benefited former parliamentary speaker Baghdasarian, a
39-year-old populist politician who is calling for Armenia’s
accession to the EU and NATO.

In all, nine candidates appear on Tuesday’s ballot.

The United States has threatened to withhold 235 million dollars in
aid and further diplomatic relations with the European Union may also
be contingent on the fairness of Tuesday’s vote, which was monitored
by 620 international observers.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s monitoring
mission was to deliver its assessment on Wednesday afternoon.

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