By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Incumbent President Robert Kocharian and his opposition challenger Stepan Demirchian clashed in a historic live televised debate late Monday on the final day of campaigning for Wednesday’s presidential run-off. Much of central Yerevan was closed for traffic earlier in the day as the two presidential finalists simultaneously rallied tens of thousands of supporters, trading fresh accusations and expressing confidence in their victory.
Throughout the unprecedented two-hour show Kocharian sought to portray his rival as an inexperienced politician lacking in-depth knowledge of economic affairs, foreign policy and constitutional reform. Looking stern and citing numerous statistical data, he warned Armenians that a victory by the leader of the opposition People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK) would be “dangerous” for their country.
Demirchian, who began the debate in an aggressive manner, responded by implicating the incumbent in vote irregularities and accusing him of sponsoring a corrupt “clan system.” “What I lack is experience with illegalities and intrigues,” he charged.
Speaking before a panel of six journalists representing six major television channels, Demirchian lashed out at the state-run Armenian Public Television and other pro-Kocharian media for their “ferocious” coverage of his presidential campaign, which he said was full of “slander and lies.”
He avoided detailed answers to questions about his socioeconomic platform, repeatedly stressing that only a “legitimately elected president” can address problems facing Armenia. He went on to denounce Kocharian for recent days’ arrests of more than a hundred opposition activists, most of them his election proxies.
Kocharian countered by saying that he has always been tolerant of dissent and that some of Demirchian’s opposition allies called for a “violent overthrow of the constitutional order” during the campaign rallies. Commenting on Demirchian’s general answers to questions on foreign policy, Kocharian sought to persuade voters that his rival has no clear idea of how to deal with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and other regional issues.
The fate of the debate, the first in its kind in Armenia’s history, hanged in the balance until the last minute. Speaking to his supporters earlier in the day, Demirchian rejected the proposed format of the discussion, saying that it amounts to “something like a news conference” and proposed instead that the two candidates debate “face to face, without intermediaries and by looking each other in the eyes.” In his opening televised remarks, the visibly self-confident opposition leader accused state television of “breaking previous agreements” and pursuing a “carefully planned scenario” to embarrass him.
The two men arrived at the TV studio after holding their final big campaign rallies in Yerevan. Kocharian, making his first public appearance since the February 19 first round, urged Armenians to reelect him by “a convincing margin that will not cause anyone’s doubt.” “We need
a victory resulting from organized and transparent elections,” he told a large crowd waving the flags of political parties supporting him.
Kocharian accused the Demirchian-led opposition of “tarnishing their own country” and undermining political stability in Armenia. His allies echoed the charge, insisting that the presidential team is interested in a clean vote.
“We have gathered here to prove to the entire world and our compatriots that our president, our candidate does not need falsifications and fraud,” said Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), one of the organizers of the gathering.
It was Kocharian’s first campaign rally in Yerevan in more than two weeks. The incumbent, who failed to win outright in the first round, has spent the past week touring his numerous campaign offices in the Armenian capital. Another speaker, Yuri Manukian of the pro-presidential Reformed Communist Party of Armenia, urged Demirchian to “shake Robert Kocharian’s hand and congratulate him on his [imminent] victory.”
The presidential rally was for the first time attended by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and Kocharian’s powerful campaign manager, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Many of the demonstrators arrived in groups with banners indicating their affiliation with business enterprises whose owners support the president.
Judging from the number of buses that lined an adjacent street in the city center, quite a few of them came from other regions of the country. “We all came here voluntarily,” said one woman who works for the Masis Tobacco factory just outside Yerevan.
“I have dropped off my passengers and am now going to the Demirchian rally,” said one bus driver from the central Kotayk province. “I got paid, while the people were simply treated to vodka. None of them came at his own will.”
Demirchian and his opposition allies rallied thousands of their supporters a few hundred meters away, on the city’s biggest Republic square flanked by the prime minister’s office and the Armenian Foreign Ministry.
“I am confident about my victory both in a [televised] debate and elections because they too know very well that in the event of a fair election they will suffer a crushing defeat,” Demirchian declared. “On March 5, we will make a choice between the establishment of a democracy and the reproduction of the junta; between dignity and humiliation.”
Demirchian said he continues to believe that the first-round vote results were falsified in Kocharian’s favor, but decided not to drop out of the race to beat him in the run-off. “The other did not get, but falsified more than 700,000 votes,” he charged.
“The country’s new leadership needs to get more than 70 percent of the vote so that they [the current authorities] can not again rig the elections,” said National Democratic Union leader Vazgen Manukian.
Also addressing the anti-government rally was Ohan Durian, a prominent Armenian conductor who had spent many years in exile during the Communist era. In an emotional speech, Durian accused Kocharian of seeking to “maintain his dictatorship.” “Mr. Kocharian, talking about culture with you is senseless,” he said.
The opposition leaders urged supporters to gather outside their polling stations after their closure late on Wednesday to prevent possible attempts to manipulate the vote. They also read out statements by more than a dozen territorial chapters of the influential Yerkrapah Union of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans warning the authorities against resorting to fraud. There were numerous reports of groups of unknown men bursting into polling stations to intimidate opposition proxies and stuff pre-marked ballots into ballot boxes during the first-round voting.
The Kocharian camp, however, insist that the irregularities were not significant and were committed by both its supporters and the opposition.