By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
First unofficial results of Wednesday’s Armenian presidential election gave President Robert Kocharian a huge lead over his main challengers amid mounting opposition allegations of unprecedented vote irregularities.
The Central Election Commission announced early on Thursday that with more than a fifth of 1.4 million cast ballots counted, Kocharian garnered about 47 percent of the vote, which is marginally below the 50 per cent plus one threshold required to win the elections outright.
Stepan Demirchian and another leading opposition candidate, Artashes Geghamian, trailed him with 30 percent and 19 percent respectively, according to the CEC. Another opposition candidate, Aram Karapetian, had 3 percent.
The early returns from polling stations across the country were dismissed as fraudulent by Demirchian’s representatives. They claimed that Kocharian’s powerful loyalists have stuffed hundreds of ballot boxes and intimidated and even beaten opposition proxies to achieve a desired outcome.
“I have never seen such a disgraceful election in Armenia before,” said Grigor Harutiunian, Demirchian’s campaign manager. “You can’t even compare it to the 1998 presidential election.” He said it is Demirchian who is emerging as the legitimate winner of the elections.
Harutiunian was speaking at a late-night news conference called following the publication of the first official figures from a dozen electoral districts scattered around the country. In some of them, Kocharian was shown grabbing as much as 75 percent of the vote.
But according to Harutiunian and other leaders of Demirchian’s People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), Wednesday’s voting proceeded with massive irregularities, with groups of government-connected men bursting into polling stations to stuff ballot boxes. They demonstrated stacks of confiscated ballots filled in Kocharian’s favor.
The HZhK headquarters in Yerevan was packed with agitated Demirchian proxies, some of whom claimed to have been assaulted and intimidated by Kocharian supporters during and especially after the voting. One proxy said he fled his polling station in the central Gegharkunik province after being attacked by two dozen “drunk” individuals. He said police officers stood by, but did not dare to intervene.
“They didn’t let us watch the vote count,” said another Demirchian proxy who just arrived from an electoral precinct in Yerevan’s Ajapnyak district.
In another city district, Erebuni, police detained two pro-Demirchian members of the Armenian parliament, Ara Ketikian and Grigor Madatian, for allegedly interfering with the voting. The chairman of the parliament’s legal affairs committee, Victor Dallakian, condemned their detention, saying that the charges are “unfounded.”
In Harutiunian’s words, opposition proxies were being illegally expelled en masse from the capital’s polling stations after the voting drew to a close. He claimed that the election officials, most of whom are loyal to Kocharian, were preparing to add thousands of ballots in their absence.
“We are not going to put up with this,” he warned. “We will get the people to the streets and go to the end by using all legitimate methods of struggle.”
On Wednesday, three hours before the polls closed, Demirchian, Geghamian Karapetian and another opposition candidate, Vazgen Manukian, issued a joint statement accusing the authorities of falsifying the vote in Kocharian's favor. They said the voting was marred by "massive irregularities and violence."
HZhK sources said that Demirchian and possibly other opposition leaders will stage an anti-government rally on Thursday.
Shortly before the publication of the first results Kocharian indicated his satisfaction with his government’s handling of the presidential ballot which he said met democratic standards. “We are happy with the course of the elections,” his campaign spokesman, Vahagn Mkrtchian, told a late-night news conference at the president’s campaign headquarters in Yerevan. “We consider them really free and fair.”
Mkrtchian refused to comment on the joint opposition statement. But he did say that the election marked a big “step forward” in Armenia’s democratization despite “provocation attempts” by the opposition.
Mkrtchian declined to make any forecasts about the outcome of the race, saying only that the presidential team is in a “good mood.”