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Karabakh Holds Presidential Runoff Amid Coronavirus Concerns


Nagorno-Karabakh -- A voter (L) and an election commission official at a polling station in Stepanakert, March 31, 2020.

Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh went to the polls on Tuesday in the second round of a presidential election held amid serious concerns about the spread of coronavirus in the Armenian-populated territory which had broken away from Azerbaijan in 1991.

Ara Harutiunian, a wealthy businessman and former prime minister, won over 49 percent of the vote in the first round held on March 31 and was seen as the favorite to succeed Bako Sahakian, Karabakh’s outgoing president. His challenger, Masis Mayilian, finished second with 26.4 percent.

Citing the coronavirus pandemic, Mayilian urged supporters on April 5 to boycott the runoff. But he stopped short of withdrawing from the presidential race. Sources told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that Mayilian will not cast his vote on Tuesday.

Other political and civic figures in Karabakh as well as Armenia also called for a postponement or cancellation of the election. The authorities in Stepanakert dismissed those calls, saying that precautionary measures taken by them will contain the spread of the virus.

The authorities did not change their stance, effectively backed by Harutiunian, even after reporting the first case of coronavirus in Karabakh on April 5. Five more people tested positive for the virus and more than a dozen others were quarantined in the following days, according to them.

On April 12, Sahakian declared a coronavirus-related “emergency situation” in the region but made clear that the runoff will go ahead as planned. The emergency rule bans public gatherings, restricts transport links within Karabakh and bars citizens of Armenia and other countries from entering the region.

All of Karabakh’s more than 280 polling stations were disinfected on the eve of the controversial runoff. As was the case on March 31, every voter was handed a face mask, gloves and a single-use pen when entering them. Election officials also wore protective masks and gloves.

According to the local central election commission, 28 percent of Karabakh’s 103,000 eligible voters cast their ballots as of 2 p.m. local time. The turnout thus seemed to be considerably lower than in the first round of voting.

Karabakh Armenians also elected on March 31 their new parliament. Harutiunian’s Free Fatherland party won more than 40 percent of those votes and will control 16 of the 33 parliament seats.

The opposition United Homeland party of Samvel Babayan, a former Karabakh army commander, will be the second largest parliamentary force with 9 seats. Three other political groups will also be represented in the local legislature.

Azerbaijan strongly condemned the Karabakh elections, saying that they run counter to Azerbaijani and international law. It also said that that Karabakh is governed by an “illegal regime installed by Armenia.”

U.S., Russian and French diplomats co-heading the OSCE Minsk Group stressed, for their part, that Karabakh is not recognized as an independent state by the international community and that “the so-called general elections” cannot predetermine the outcome of Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks mediated by them.

The European Union likewise said that the elections “cannot prejudice the determination of the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh” and that it “does not recognize the constitutional and legal framework within which they are being held.”

By contrast, Armenia defended the holding of the polls. It argued that OSCE member states had adopted in 1992 a document saying that “elected representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh” should also participate in the peace process.

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