By Ruzanna Khachatrian, Ruzanna Stepanian, Emil Danielyan and Ruben Meloyan
President Robert Kocharian and the main candidates cast their ballots on Tuesday shortly after the start of voting in Armenia’s tense presidential election closely watched by the international community.
Polling stations across the country opened at 8 a.m. local time and were due to close twelve hours later. Early indications were that the vote attracted strong interest from Armenians, with long lines of voters observed in polling stations across Yerevan. According to the Central Election Commission, 36.5 percent of Armenia’s 2.3 million eligible voters went to the polls as of 2 p.m.
“Every election is a test from which we must emerge stronger,” Kocharian told reporters after casting his ballot in central Yerevan. “I believe that these elections will be just like that.”
“In terms of strengthening democracy, we will make further serious progress,” he said, expressing hope that the election will not require a second round of voting.
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, widely seen as the election favorite, would not say if he too expects to avoid a run-off with an opposition candidate. “I believe that the most important thing is not the number of rounds,” he said. “The most important thing is to end the elections today and to have a lot of trust in the election results.”
Both Sarkisian and his most formidable challenger, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, sounded confident about their electoral chances after voting in the polling station which Kocharian visited earlier in the day.
“I will win in the first round,” said Ter-Petrosian. He claimed at the same time that the polling has already been marred by serious violations reported by his campaign offices across the country.
“According to my information, very dirty things are happening,” said Ter-Petrosian. “There are lots of concrete facts.”
Another major opposition candidate, former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, alleged only “minor violations” and claimed to be in a “festive and victorious” mood as he voted in another precinct in the city center earlier on Tuesday. “I voted for a new Armenia that will put an end to poverty and lawlessness,” he told journalists.
“I have repeatedly said that a president elected through fraud and vote bribes would get Armenia in trouble,” said Baghdasarian.
Another major contender, Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), was confident that the presidential ballots will involve two rounds and that he will at least go into the run-off. He also expressed hope that the polls will be free and fair.
“I would like our people to be able to say in one or two days that at last there has been a fair election,” said Hovannisian. He refused to speculate on how he and his party, which is a junior partner in Armenia’s ruling coalition, would react to a possible repeat of serious fraud that tainted previous Armenian elections.
Many voters in Yerevan interviewed by RFE/RL appeared to be worried about such possibility. “The elections will hardly be free,” Levon, a 73-year-old pensioner, said outside a polling station in the city’s northern Arabkir district.
Srbuhi, a 40-year-old musician also had such fears as she prepared to vote in the same precinct. “But how can you live without hope?” she said. “I hope that these elections will help to eliminate ignorance and lawlessness. What else can a normal person expect?”
Hovannes Ohanian, a middle-aged economist, was more upbeat. “I would not have come to the polls had I not expected positive changes. Neither would these people,” he said, pointing to a long line of voters waiting to cast their ballots.
Such queus could also be seen in another Yerevan district, Malatia-Sebastia. “People are more active today that they were during the May parliamentary elections,” Hovannes Beginian, chairman of one of the local precinct election commissions, told RFE/RL.
Lena, a young local resident, said she decided to vote despite having “no great expectations” from the Armenian presidential race. “Why should I lose my vote?” she said. “After all, I am a citizen of this country.”