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Armenia: Runoff Election to Decide Next President - 2003-02-20

Voters in Armenia will have to wait another couple of weeks to find out who will become the country's next president.

Election officials announced Thursday that incumbent President Robert Kocharian narrowly missed receiving 50 percent of the vote, forcing him into a runoff election.

According to election officials, Mr. Kocharian received 49.8 percent of the votes cast. His closest competitor was Stepan Demirchian, who pulled in slightly more than 27 percent of the vote.

The pair will face each other in a runoff that election officials said would be held on March 5.

Many observers had picked President Kocharian to win in the first round of voting.

As election officials counted ballots, a group of several thousand demonstrators gathered in the capital city, Yerevan. They protested the election, saying the voting was rigged in favor of President Kocharian.

In the past, many elections in Armenia were marred by charges of election fraud. This vote was watched closely by western observers as a sign of how successful democratic reforms have been in Armenia.

One of the biggest obstacles facing whoever wins the election will be the conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

In the early 1990s, the two countries fought a bloody war over the mostly ethnic Armenian region that used to be part of the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

A cease-fire signed in 1994 ended open hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but the two sides have never been able to come to an agreement about what to do with the region.

The conflict has also left Armenia isolated and cut off from its formerly main trading partner, Russia.