By Ruzanna Khachatrian, Karine Kalantarian and Hrach Melkumian
President Robert Kocharian and his main challengers each expressed optimism about his chance of victory as they cast their ballots in front of television cameras on Wednesday. Voter turnout appeared high despite a heavy snowfall that began the previous night and carried on into Wednesday.
Kocharian, speaking to reporters after casting his ballot in Yerevan, sounded confident of reelection. He said he would not have joined the race without making "appropriate calculations" of his popularity. Kocharian added he will spend the rest of the day resting, following a one-month election campaign.
A close Kocharian associate, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, said he expected the president to win a clear first-round victory. Fifty percent plus one vote is needed for a clear first-round win. But Kocharian's most popular rival, Stepan Demirchian, insisted that his chances of a first round win are more "realistic:"
"We believe that our victory in the first round is absolutely realistic," Demirchian said.
Another leading opposition contender, Artashes Geghamian, also predicted defeat for Kocharian. Geghamian predicted that the election will likely go into a runoff between himself and Demirchian. Runoffs are tentatively scheduled for March 5.
The opposition candidates again claimed that Kocharian and his government allies will try to manipulate the vote. "Nobody is so naive as to think that these authorities can hold elections without irregularities. But we will do everything to prevent those irregularities,” Demirchian said, pointing to a newspaper report about hundreds of ballots allegedly distributed by the Kocharian campaign in violation of the law.
According to the pro-opposition daily "Haykakan Zhamanak," an unidentified man visited the offices of the opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party last night with 500 ballots which he said he were given to him by one of Kocharian's campaign offices with the aim of stuffing them into ballot boxes. The paper carried a front-page picture of those ballots.
A senior member of Hanrapetutyun, which supports Demirchian, claimed that proxies for opposition candidates disrupted an attempt at ballot box-stuffing in the city of Abovian shortly after the polls opened at 0800 local time.The information could not be immediately confirmed from independent sources.
Armenia's Central Election Commission said it received a similar report from Yerevan's Davitashen district, but said it turned out to be false.
In another city district, Arabkir, an RFE/RL correspondent saw a thick stack of ballots folded together inside the transparent plastic ballot box. Opposition proxies there suggested the ballots might have been illegally cast by a single person.
Kocharian, meanwhile, again pledged to ensure that the election would be free of procedural violations. He said that international monitors and journalists are both free to observe closely the course of the voting and the vote count "You are able to tour polling stations. We have done everything possible. I think the elections will be really free and fair" he said.
Approximately 2.3 million Armenians are eligible to vote. Nine candidates are running for the Armenian presidency.