Armenia Geared Up For Crucial Presidential Vote

President Robert Kocharian reassured the international community Monday that his administration will ensure the freedom and fairness of Tuesday's presidential election as Armenians prepared to go to the polls to choose his successor.

Meeting with the Yerevan-based ambassadors of some two dozen OSCE member states, Kocharian said the Armenian authorities are "determined" to hold an election meeting international standards. He said all nine presidential candidates have been able to freely present their platforms and views to voters during the month-long election campaign.

"All state bodies and election commission members are fully ready for the elections," Kocharian told the diplomats, according to the presidential press service. He was also cited as predicting that the vote will be "calm and without incidents."

In televised remarks at the weekend, Kocharian, who is completing his second and final term in office, urged Armenians to vote for his preferred successor and longtime associate, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. The latter's main challengers are former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and Vahan Hovannisian, the deputy speaker of the current Armenian parliament. All three candidates have expressed concern about a possible repeat of serious fraud that marred previous Armenian elections.

The crucial vote will be monitored by some 620 foreign observers. About 400 of them represent the main international vote-monitoring mission jointly deployed in Armenia by the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Union. Their findings will be crucial for the international legitimacy of Armenia's next president.

According to a spokesman for the OSCE's vote-monitoring arm, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the observers, among them several dozen European parliamentarians, plan to visit 80 percent of some 1,900 polling stations across Armenia on voting day. "It's a very good coverage," Jens-Hagen Eschenbacher told.

"Observers will arrive at polling stations unannounced," he said. "It is not known in advance which polling station will be covered."

According to the Central Election Commission, the voting and counting of ballots will also be watched by as many as 14,000 local monitors representing about 40 Armenian non-governmental organizations as well as a comparable number of proxies to be deployed by the candidates.

One of the candidates, Baghdasarian, and his Orinats Yerkir Party opened a hot line for citizens witnessing instances of ballot stuffing, vote buying and other types of fraud. A similar hot line was also launched by the office of Armenia's state human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian. Harutiunian told that his employees will cooperate with civic groups in reacting to possible fraud reports.

Also pledging anti-fraud efforts was the opposition Zharangutyun Party, which is also represented in the parliament and election commission. A senior Zharangutyun member, Stepan Safarian, said the party will release voter turnout figures once in every three hours based on information received from its commission members and observers.

"We will try to check the figures which election commissions will be submitting to the Central Election Commission. That way we will try to ensure an oversight of the elections." Safarian told reporters, adding that Zharangutyun has formed several "rapid reaction groups" that will be ready to arrive at troubled polling stations.

Safarian also claimed that his party has already received "credible reports" of vote buying in and outside Yerevan. But he offered no proof of the claims, saying that it will be made public after the election.

For her part, Zoya Tadevosian, the CEC member affiliated with Zharangutyun, claimed that the chairman of a precinct commission in Yerevan's southern Erebuni district illegally validated Monday thousands of ballots. She said her attempts to get the CEC to stop the official doing that were unsuccessful.

However, two other members of the CEC affiliated with the governing Republican Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) told that their proxies have not registered any irregularities so far.

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