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By Emil Danielyan
Presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian and his opposition allies sounded on Saturday confident of their victory in next week’s election as they rallied thousands of supporters in Yerevan and the nearby industrial city of Abovian.

Demirchian was again cheered by scores of people highly critical of the current Armenian leadership and President Robert Kocharian in particular.

“I am convinced that the popular will prevail on February 19,” Demirchian declared at a campaign rally in Abovian. “After that we will get down to business and will have to channel this enthusiasm into the development and prosperity of our country.”

Other opposition leaders accompanying him were equally self-confident, arguing that a strong attendance of Demirchian’s gatherings across the country shows that Kocharian can not win the majority of votes. “The regime is dead, but not buried. The funeral service will take place on February 19,” said Shavarsh Kocharian, the leader of the National Democratic Party.

“We are convinced that our people will go to the polls on February 19 and elect Stepan Demirchian who is very much loved and respected by all of us,” claimed Albert Bazeyan of the Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party.

The freedom and fairness of the ballot was another major theme of the candidate’s campaign meetings in Abovian and the Yerevan districts of Nor Nork, Arabkir and Shengavit, with Demirchian and his allies warning the authorities against trying to falsify its results.

Demirchian said that vote rigging, which he believes prevented his assassinated father from becoming president five years ago, would be deemed an “inexcusable and grave crime” this time around. “Those who resort to it must realize that they are committing a crime which will not be forgiven,” he warned.

Another Hanrapetutyun leader, former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian, also issued a stark warning to those found guilty of vote irregularities, saying: “They would familiarize themselves with the negative sides of our character.”

Demirchian and other opposition presidential candidates have already accused Kocharian of taking illegal actions to ensure the incumbent’s reelection. But the presidential team strongly denies those charges, saying that Kocharian himself is interested in a clean vote because he is the favorite to win it. According to opinion polls conducted by government-connected pollsters, Kocharian has a huge lead over Demirchian and other challengers, and can win in the first round of voting.

However, voter surveys published in the opposition media present a different picture, putting Kocharian’s approval ratings at well below 30 percent. Some of them have put Demirchian in the lead. The latter’s People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK) and other supporters have been buoyed by emotional and enthusiastic receptions Demirchian has enjoyed in various parts of Armenia during more than three weeks of campaigning.

Scenes of villagers slaughtering their animals in the HZhK leader’s favor, the hallmark of the Demirchian campaign, have rekindled memories of the late Karen Demirchian’s 1998 presidential run. Demirchian Sr., who was assassinated in the October 1999 massacre in the Armenian parliament, never recognized the official results of the 1998 vote which gave victory to Kocharian.

Saturday’s rallies again showed that Demirchian Jr. draws much of his public support from the populist appeal of his father who was the first secretary of the Soviet Armenian Communist Party from 1974-1988, an era of stability and welfare for many impoverished Armenians. A woman attending the rally at Nor Nork summed up the dominant mood among Stepan Demirchian’s supporters when she said: “Kings only give birth to princes.”

“We had everything at that time. We were not hungry and undressed. I do remember that, though I was very young,” said Eva Harutiunian, a 38-year-old hairdresser.

Martin Hambartsumian, a retired school teacher, claimed that the family factor does not matter to him. “His professional background shows that he understands the people’s pain and needs,” he said. “By reading his programs, I see that he knows how to get these impoverished people out of this situation.”

Demirchian, however, was again vague about how he would go about boosting low living standards, fighting corruption and ensuring the rule of law. He promised only to revive those Soviet-era idle factories that can be competitive in a market-based economy. “What we need is state support, a real one. Especially in helping them find new markets,” he said.

The lack of specific campaign promises did not seem to bother many of those who gathered to listen to the 43-year-old manager of a state-run electronics plant. “I voted for his dad, Karen Demirchian, in 1998 and I will vote for him now,” said pensioner Nora Mkrtchian. “The current president is surrounded by such people that we have lost faith in him, whereas Demirchian will do everything necessary.”

(RFE/RL photo: Demirchian supporters applauding during the rally in Nor Nork.)
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