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Armenians Go to Polls to Elect President - 2003-02-18

Armenians go to the polls Wednesday to elect a president. In addition to incumbent President Robert Kocharian, there are eight candidates. President Kocharian's campaign chief says he expects the Armenian leader will receive the minimum 50-percent required to win re-election outright in the poll Wednesday.

But opposition leaders are predicting the incumbent will not get a majority. Mr. Kocharian was first elected in 1998 and the opposition says Armenian voters believe it is time the Caucasus Mountain republic had a new president.

About 20,000 people held an opposition rally Sunday in the capital, Yerevan, in support of Mr. Kocharian's main rival, Stepan Demirchian. Mr. Demirchian is the leader of the People's Party, which, among other things, accuses the Kocharian government of corruption.

The other big issues in the campaign are education, judicial reform, and the poor state of the Armenian economy. The early part of Mr. Kocharian's five-year term in office was rocked when hard-line nationalists assassinated the former prime minister and seven other officials in October 1999. Mr. Demirchian is the son of one of the assassinated officials.

Talks between the two countries have failed to end the dispute over the enclave. Analysts say it will be hard for Armenia to overcome its domestic problems as long as its foreign policy problems continue.

The election outcome is hard to predict because anyone with an Armenian passport, or even an old Soviet-era passport, is eligible to vote, including millions of Armenians scattered all around the world. Thirty-six polling stations have been set up outside the country, in places from Moscow to Los Angeles.