By Emil Danielyan, Karine Kalantarian, Atom Markarian, Ruzanna Khachatrian and Hrach Melkumian
The four main opposition candidates in Armenia’s presidential election have accused incumbent Robert Kocharian of resorting to vote rigging, but vowed to keep the incumbent from clinging to power “at any cost.”
In a joint statement signed three hours before the closure of polls, the candidates -- Stepan Demirchian, Artashes Geghamian, Vazgen Manukian and Aram Karapetian -- charged that the vote has already been marred by “massive irregularities and violence” that call into question its freedom and fairness.
“All this is part of the final efforts by the unpopular regime of incumbent President Robert Kocharian to hold on to power at any cost,” they said.
There was no immediate reaction to the statement from Kocharian and Armenia’s Central Election Commission. In comments earlier on Wednesday, Kocharian again pledged to ensure that the election would be free of procedural violations. “I think the elections will be really free and fair,” he told reporters.
The opposition leaders had initially planned to issue a more strongly-worded statement that challenged the legitimacy of the ballot. It was not immediately clear why they later opted for softer language. Geghamian told RFE/RL that he would stick to the original text which said that the alleged irregularities have already predetermined its outcome in Kocharian’s favor.
Throughout the day the campaign offices of the opposition contenders have claimed instances of ballot box stuffing, vote buying and intimidation of opposition supporters across the country.
Election officials in a polling station in the center of Yerevan told RFE/RL that they prevented one person from casting several ballots. One of its commission members, Adrine Avagian of Manukian’s National Democratic Union (AZhM), said the unknown “young man” hit and insulted her after she blocked the ballot box with her body.
“The police officers took him away but then apparently let him go,” she said. But according to the chairman of the precinct commission, Karen Mirakian, the man simply “ran away.” Mirakian said it was a third such incident registered in his precinct on the polling day.
Opposition representatives at another precinct in the same area said the polling was not marred by any incidents. “Everything is normal here,” said a Geghamian proxy there.
But in Yerevan’s northern Arabkir district, an RFE/RL correspondent saw a thick stack of dozens of ballots folded together inside the transparent plastic ballot box. Those ballots were filmed by a cameraman from the private Shant television. The videotape was then reportedly confiscated by a group of men present at the polling station.
A correspondent for the opposition “Ayzhm” newspaper who was at a neighboring polling station claimed to have been assaulted by other men who allegedly stuffed its German-made plastic box with ballots.
A similar incident was reported from another Arabkir precinct. An opposition proxy there, Garnik Hambarstumian, said: “Two persons came up to the ballot box and dropped a stack of ballots into it. The deputy chairman of the prencict commission, who stood by, either didn’t notice or didn’t want to notice that.” But the commission chairman, Manvel Papoyan, denied the claims.
Speaking to journalists after casting his ballot earlier in the day, Geghamian alleged that thousands of ballots filled in favor of Kocharian were distributed to Armenian army conscripts. Another opposition canddiate, Garnik Markarian, echoed the charges, telling RFE/RL that soldiers at a military unit in Yerevan voted for several times.
Voting by the military was a major source of irregularities in the previous Armenian elections.
Early reports of irregularities were dismissed by Kocharian’s powerful campaign manager, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. “I think that nothing extraordinary is going on,” Sarkisian told reporters after casting his ballot in central Yerevan.
For his part, Kocharian’s campaign spokesman Vahagn Mkrtchian accused the opposition of stirring up “artification tensions” in the country. Mkrtchian said the opposition campaigners are themslves “terrorizing and intimidating” election officials.
The voting was monitored by more than 250 election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE mission is due to present its crucial preliminary conclusions on Thursday.