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  Early Unofficial Results Show Incumbent Kocharian in Lead in Armenian Presidential Election
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ContributorMr. Techno 
Last EditedMr. Techno  Feb 19, 2003 08:54pm
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News DateThursday, February 20, 2003 02:54:09 AM UTC0:0
DescriptionYEREVAN, Armenia (AP) - Armenia President Robert Kocharian took a lead in early election returns, officials said Thursday, in a vote seen as a turning point in a country still recovering from a military conflict and riven by a growing gap between rich and poor.

Results from some of the regions outside the capital Yerevan showed Kocharian leading by at least 50 percent depending on the region, according to unofficial results from the election commission.

His eight challengers for the presidency were lagging, with People's Party leader Stepan Demirchian and National Unity Party leader Artashes Gegamian making the best showings.

The commission didn't say what percentage of the vote had been counted. The winner must get at least 50 percent of the total, otherwise a runoff will be held.

The election is seen as a key test of democracy in this former Soviet republic. Armenians hope it will lead to higher living standards and a settlement to the conflict with Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Kocharian was widely expected to secure the necessary 50 percent of the votes to win a first-round victory. Election officials said no major violations have been reported.

But hours after the polls closed, four of the main opposition candidates issued a statement alleging that there had been mass violations of procedures that jeopardized the fairness of the election and the country's international reputation.

Demirchian and Gegamian joined two others in accusing Kocharian of trying to hang onto power at all costs. Kocharian's spokesman insisted that the election was free and fair.

Backed by Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh forces fought a 1988-94 war with Azerbaijan. Despite a cease-fire, the dispute remains unresolved.

Kocharian is a native of Nagorno-Karabakh and was a key figure in the region's movement for self-determination. His supporters say he is the best person to reach a final settlement.

Armenia's divided opposition failed to unite behind a single candidate and analysts say the opposition contenders' chances were undermined by the weakness of their election platforms, mostly based on populist slogans and criticism of Kocharian.
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