Thousands rally over election

Saturday, February 22, 2003

YEREVAN, Armenia -- About 25,000 people rallied against President Robert Kocharian in the Armenian capital Friday, urging him to resign after his failure to win a clear re-election.

Many protesters backed opposition complaints that the balloting was rigged in Kocharian's favor, though he won less than the needed 50 percent and now must enter a run-off.

European observers also said Wednesday's vote was "flawed" by ballot-stuffing and intimidation.

"Give up power, or things will go badly for you," said Aram Karapetian, one of eight candidates who ran against the president.

Stepan Demirchian, who is to face Kocharian in a March 5 runoff, said that the opposition would act within the law.

Official figures showed Kocharian with 49.8 percent of the vote -- just shy of the simple majority needed for a first-round victory -- and Demirchian with 28.3 percent.

Demirchian, 43, ran on an anti-corruption platform. He also tried to attract voters using the political image of his father, Karen Demirchian, a Soviet-era leader who was Kocharian's main rival in the 1998 presidential election. He was among eight people killed in a 1999 shooting spree in parliament.

Kocharian's opponents blame him for nearly 30 alleged, unsolved political killings in the past few years and for the widening gap between rich and poor. They also blame him for failing to secure a deal with Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

His supporters say he has contributed to economic stabilization of this former Soviet republic and is the best person to reach a settlement with Azerbaijan. He a native of the region and a key figure in its movement for self-determination.

Backed by Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh forces fought a 1988-94 war with Azerbaijan, in which more than 30,000 people were killed and a million driven from their homes. Despite a cease-fire, the dispute remains unresolved, and a resulting economic blockade by Azerbaijan and its regional ally Turkey have left Armenia in an economic vise.

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