By Shakeh Avoyan
Stepan Demirchian and his opposition allies claimed Thursday victory in the previous day’s presidential election as thousands of their supporters rallied in Yerevan in protest against the alleged massive vote irregularities.
Demirchian dismissed as fraudulent initial figures from some polling stations which showed incumbent President Robert Kocharian heading for a first-round reelection. “The presidential elections of February 2003 were even more disgraceful than the presidential elections of 1998,” he told the crowd, referring to his late father’s disputed second-round loss to Kocharian.
“The people’s will has prevailed; Robert Kocharian has been rejected an we will establish the people’s government in Armenia,” Demirchian declared. “My first step in my capacity as president of the Republic of Armenia will be to punish those who rigged the elections.”
Other opposition leaders addressing the rally also alleged vote rigging and predicted imminent defeat for Kocharian. Some of them drew parallels with the troubled presidential election of September 1996 which also sparked street protests by opposition supporters.
“The anti-popular regime is dead, but not buried,” charged Shavarsh Kocharian of the National Democratic Party. “It’s obvious to everyone that Robert Kocharian has suffered a disgraceful defeat.”
Demirchian’s campaign manager, Grigor Harutiunian, again claimed that government-connected individuals harassed and intimidated opposition proxies across the country to stuff hundreds of thousands of ballot into polling boxes.
However, Kocharian’s campaign spokesman, Vahagn Mkrtchian, insisted early on Thursday that the election was “really free and fair.”
The protesters then marched to the nearby building of the Central Election Commission, chanting “Demirchian! Demirchian!” It was surrounded by riot police wielding shields and rubber truncheons. Some opposition representatives went inside to negotiate with CEC officials.
The crowd still demonstrated outside the building when CEC chairman Artak Sahradian announced on state television later in the day that Kocharian and Demirchian will face each other in a run-off.