International election observers Thursday sharply criticized Armenia's presidential election, citing violations and widespread ballot box stuffing, and tens of thousands of opposition supporters rallied in protest of the vote.
Central Election Commission officials announced preliminary results in Wednesday's second-round balloting, with incumbent President Robert Kocharyan winning 67.5% of the vote and his rival, Stepan Demirchyan, taking 32.5%.
About 40,000 Demirchyan supporters rallied in Yerevan's misty afternoon gloom, many of them expressing despair over a count they said was obviously falsified.
"I swear on the Bible, in 20 or 30 years' time, mankind will be able to cure AIDS and cancer and other lethal diseases but this one will remain uncured because it's intractable," said one Demirchyan voter, Armen Zakaryan, 45, a physical education teacher working as a driver.
"I feel as if there's no democracy and there never will be," he said.
The Central Election Commission insists that the election was fair and free.
University student Armen Kirakosyan, 17, said Kocharyan had undermined his legitimacy. "It's clear to everyone he didn't win," Kirakosyan said. "You can't keep on lying to the people. We've had enough lies."
The crowd walked peacefully past rolls of razor wire and the watchful eyes of special police.
Demirchyan said he didn't accept the results but would act constitutionally. Asked if he would declare himself president, he told The Times: "I'm saying I will not accept the results. There have been the grossest falsifications.
"The elections were held in an atmosphere of terror. It is the country, the nation that is worse off as a result of all this," he said, adding that the opposition would demand that the election be declared invalid.
Peter Eicher, head of the observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said there were "serious problems and irregularities" in the vote, but he declined to say whether they were enough to change the result. He said that was for Armenians to decide.
"We're disappointed with the process. We had hoped for better," he said. "Once again we saw significant problems on election day."
More than 11 years after independence, Armenia is still struggling to escape its lingering Soviet legacy, transform its political system and restructure its economy. Corruption and poverty are endemic: Despite economic growth and significant U.S. aid, the benefits have not trickled down, with more than half the populace living in poverty.
David Petrosyan of the Noyan Tapan independent news agency said the election could backfire on the president.
"Kocharyan did not win the election, and he knows that the people know it," he said. "It is this fact that will make his legitimacy as president extremely low.
"There's a shocking abyss between the poor and the rich in Armenia," Petrosyan said. "In fact, Kocharyan relies only on a very narrow stratum of super-rich oligarchs and the power-wielding ministries. That's his style of running Armenia."
A major concern of the opposition was the arrest and trial of activists, at least 77 of whom were jailed, often after closed hearings at which they were refused attorneys.
The observer mission's Eicher said there had been intimidation, widespread ballot box stuffing and discrepancies at a large number of polling booths. He criticized the election commission for failing to promptly publish first-round figures and called for quick publication of the details in the second round.
"This delay contributed to a lack of transparency and lack of confidence in the results," he said.
The details of the preliminary report by the OSCE and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe handed down Thursday indicated serious discrepancies in the first-round count.
It was too early to report on the second round.
At seven polling stations in the first round, more than 100% of voters supposedly turned out, and at 124 stations more ballots were found in boxes than had been issued to voters.
The observers cited numerous results they said were implausible: 96 polling stations where Kocharyan won more than 90% of the vote, and 12 where he won every single vote. Several stations where 100% voter turnout was registered were also deemed questionable.
Zhasmin Telyan, 55, a Demirchyan supporter, predicted that parliamentary elections scheduled for May would also be fraudulent.
"We have very democratic people, but the regime is totally undemocratic. It is built on the clan system," Telyan said.
"As long as it is in power, nothing will change and Armenia will never have democracy," Telyan said.
Alexei Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.