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Armenians to choose new president today

HDN | 3/16/1998 12:00:00 AM |

Twelve candidates are running, but only three have a good chance of competing in second round Yerevan- Reuters Armenians, dogged over the past decade by war and economic ruin, vote today for a new president in an election being watched well beyond the borders of their mountainous, landlocked country. Twelve candidates are running, but only three have a good chance of competing in a second round of voting if, as expected, none of them gets more than 50 percent. The front-runners are Armenia's Soviet-era

  • Twelve candidates are running, but only three have a good chance of competing in second round

    Yerevan- Reuters

    Armenians, dogged over the past decade by war and economic ruin, vote today for a new president in an election being watched well beyond the borders of their mountainous, landlocked country. Twelve candidates are running, but only three have a good chance of competing in a second round of voting if, as expected, none of them gets more than 50 percent.

    The front-runners are Armenia's Soviet-era leader Karen Demirchyan, Prime Minister and acting president Robert Kocharyan and ex-prime minister Vazgen Manukyan.

    Demirchyan, tall and charismatic, has made a lightning political comeback after being largely forgotten for a decade and is generally thought to be heading the pack. All three fanned out across the capital Yerevan and into the provinces on Sunday for a last bout of campaigning.

    The outcome -- first results are not expected to be announced until Tuesday -- will reverberate outside the country of four million and have an impact on Armenia's stance in peace talks with its neighbor and foe, oil-rich Azerbaijan.

    Azeris and Armenians are involved in a decade-long conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh which looms ominously over $30 billion in contracts foreign companies have signed to invest in Azerbaijan's offshore Caspian oil fields. The new president will replace Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who resigned last month under pressure from opponents upset with concessions he offered to the Azeris to end the war. Three hundred foreign observers will monitor voting, which begins at 8 a.m. (0400 GMT) and ends at 10 p.m. in 1,597 polling stations across Armenia.

    They will be trying to prevent a repeat of irregularities which they say marred Armenia's 1996 presidential poll and its 1995 parliamentary vote.

    Demirchyan and Manukyan have already accused Kocharyan of using his control over the government to try to intimidate voters, a charge Kocharyan denies.

    Opinion polls in Armenia are considered suspect but Demirchyan is placed first, Kocharyan second, and Manukyan third in most. Political observers say a second round, which would take place two weeks after the first, is all but inevitable. Demirchyan, a tall 65-year-old with slicked-back hair, was Armenia's Soviet chief in the 1970s and 1980s. He has stormed out of a decade of obscurity to stir nostalgia for the stability and relative prosperity of Soviet times among voters. His campaign, short on specifics and featuring black and white television footage of his reign, is proving especially popular with poorer, older voters in rural areas sick of instability and hardship since Armenian independence in 1991. On Saturday, he denied his popularity was based on a naive belief among voters he could instantly reverse their post-communist plunge in living standards.

    "There is a nostalgia for a dignified life, not cheap sausage. People remember their dignity," Demirchyan told reporters during a campaign stop in the village of Oshakan, just north of Yerevan. "We are going to return it to them." Kocharyan, 43, is a Karabakh native who served as its leader and was enlisted by Ter-Petrosyan to head the Armenian government last year, but then turned on his boss.

    He is a staunch backer of Karabakh's desire for self-determination and also emphasizes fighting corruption. "A policy of concessions can have ominous consequences as it will create the impression among international mediators and Azerbaijan that it is possible to force Armenia to give in by exerting pressure on it," he said recently.

    Manukyan is a 52-year old physicist who has served as prime minister and defence minister. He says he won the 1996 poll and accused Ter-Petrosyan of using fraud to cling to power. He pledges to revitalize industry and is supported by his center-right National Democratic Union.

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