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Strong turnout as Armenians choose president

March 16, 1998
Web posted at: 11:21 a.m. EST (1621 GMT)

YEREVAN, Armenia (CNN) -- Election officials noted a high turnout in the country's presidential election on Monday, saying that about 45 percent of the 2.2 million Armenian voters had cast their ballots by late afternoon.

Voters in the capital braved light drizzle and chilly temperatures as they lined up to cast their ballots in an election dominated by the issues of high unemployment, economic decline, poverty and political infighting.

About 200 international observers are monitoring the vote in the former Soviet republic, including representatives of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe.

First results were expected to be announced on Tuesday.

Twelve candidates are running in the election, but three men have emerged from the pack as front-runners.

Armenian elections

Vozgen Manukyan is considered a dark-horse candidate. The former prime minister and opposition leader lost the controversial 1996 presidential election to Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who led Armenia to independence in 1991.

But Ter-Petrosyan's administration was branded by many as corrupt. He was forced to resign last month, following a power struggle with the Armenian Parliament. The resignation forced a new presidential election.

Karen Demirchyan, who was Armenia's leader under Soviet rule in the 1970s and '80s, had been out of politics for a decade. He has since revamped his image, emerging as a free-market advocate.

Armenian flag
Armenian authorities fear voting irregularities and predict a runoff  

The current prime minister and acting president, Robert Kocharyan, is 22 years younger than Demirchyan and is considered more energetic. But many Armenians hold Kocharyan partly responsible for their nation's current economic worries.

Armenia is one of the poorest former Soviet satellites, with unemployment estimated at 20 percent. It is still trying to recover from the effects of a devastating 1988 earthquake, which left tens of thousands dead. The economy, and what to do about it, has been a primary campaign issue.

Demirchyan supporters
Demirchyan supporters argue for his election  

Also, Kocharyan's Armenian citizenship is being contested by his rivals. Until last year, when he became prime minister, Kocharyan lived in Nagorno-Karabakh -- a disputed enclave inside neighboring Azerbaijan that fought a war for separation and now considers itself an independent country. Armenians and Azeris have been involved in brutal clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh for the past decade.

If, as expected, none of the candidates receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round of balloting will be held March 30. Results from Monday's vote are not expected until late Tuesday.

Correspondent Betsy Aaron and Reuters contributed to this report.


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