Exit poll projects ruling party win in Armenia 'milestone' vote

Mariam HARUTYUNYAN
An elderly man casts his ballot at a polling station in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, in legislative elections. It is the first ballot since the adoption of constitutional reforms aimed at transforming the ex-Soviet country into a parliamentary republic

The ruling Republican Party led parliamentary elections in Armenia on Sunday, held for the first time since constitutional reforms transformed the ex-Soviet country into a parliamentary republic, an exit poll said.

President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party received 46 percent of the vote, while an opposition alliance led by Gagik Tsarukian, a former arm wrestler and one of the country's wealthiest businessmen, came second with 25 percent, according to an exit poll conducted by Armenia's Sociologists' Association and Baltic Surveys/Gallup International.

Two more opposition forces -- Elk Coalition and the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party -– are set to enter the parliament with 10 percent and five percent of the vote respectively, pollster Gevorg Poghosyan of Armenia's Sociologists' Association told a news conference.

"The margin of error is 1.5 percent," he said.

Turnout stood at 51 percent nine hours after polls opened, the Central Electoral Commission said.

The West sees the election as a key democratic test for the landlocked nation of 2.9 million, which has no history of transferring power to the opposition through the ballot box.

Sarkisian has said his government "has made enormous efforts so that (Sunday's) milestone vote is flawless."

But opposition politicians reported violations at polling stations after previously warning that the government is preparing mass electoral fraud.

"We have recorded numerous violations at polling stations -- violation of ballots' secrecy and multiple voting," Hovsep Khurshudyan, a leader of Ohanyan-Raffi-Oskanyan, an opposition coalition, told AFP.

Before the ballot, the EU delegation to Armenia and the US embassy said in a joint statement that they were "concerned by allegations of voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties."

- Allegations of fraud –

Violence flared after Sarkisian's election in 2008. Ten people were killed in clashes between police and opposition supporters.

The polls followed constitutional amendments initiated by Sarkisian in 2015 that his opponents say were crafted to keep his Republican Party in power.

The amendments will shift the country away from a strong presidency to a parliamentary form of government after Sarkisian's second and final term ends in 2018.

The opposition says the changes will enable Sarkisian, 62, to maintain his grip on power by remaining party leader after he steps down as president.

Sarkisian denies that, saying the changes are "part of Armenia's democratisation process."

Ahead of the vote, Sarkisian told AFP he would remain "active" in politics after he left office by staying as party leader.

"As chairman of the Republican Party, I assume responsibility for my teammates," he said when asked about his post-2018 future.

- Populist promises -

Both ruling and opposition parties campaigned on populist promises such as "jobs, wages, pensions," pollster Poghosyan told AFP. About 30 percent of the population live under the official poverty line.

Tsarukian built his campaign on lavish promises to cut tariffs on natural gas and electricity and hike public-sector salaries and pensions. He accuses the government of failing to address poverty and endemic corruption.

Five parties and four electoral blocs were running in Sunday's vote, with 101 parliamentary seats up for grabs under a proportional representation system.

A party needs to clear a five-percent threshold to win seats, while an electoral bloc made up of several parties needs at least seven percent of the vote.

Voting, which started at 0400 GMT and ended at 1600 GMT, was monitored by international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.