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Armenians Elect New President - 2003-02-19

Voters in Armenia went to the polls Wednesday to elect a new president. The election is being watched closely by international observers for signs of fraud.

Observers say incumbent Robert Kocharian is expected to win Wednesday's presidential election, despite an ongoing conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan and a suffering economy.

Mr. Kocharian is facing eight challengers. The most serious is Stepan Demirchian, the son of a prominent Armenian politician killed during a shootout in parliament four years ago.

While many voters say they are not happy with Mr. Kocharian, they also say they are voting for him in order to preserve stability.

Besides the other candidates, there is another challenge to Mr. Korcharian during this election. After many elections marred by fraud, international observers are closely monitoring this vote to see whether the country has made a solid commitment to democracy.

Many observers say it is important that the winner of the vote be the uncontested victor and fairly elected, so he will have the political strength to tackle one of the mostly important issues in Armenia: the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan fought a bloody war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a mostly Armenian enclave that used to be part of the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

A cease-fire was signed in 1994, but despite a number of meetings the two sides have not been able to come to an agreement over the region.

Another issue during the campaign has been the economy. Many of the country's slightly more than three million people live in poverty as a result of the war and from being cut off from Russia, formerly its main trading partner.

The winner must receive a majority of the votes during Wednesday's election. If no candidate receives a majority, then the two top vote-winners will compete in a run-off election in two weeks.