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Armenia leader cruising to election victory

16 february 2013, 10:50
Armenia votes in presidential polls Monday with incumbent leader Serzh Sarkisian set for victory in an election watched closely as a test of the ex-Soviet state's democratic credentials but marked by an absence of any serious opposition challenge, AFP reports.

The holding of the election was in doubt until almost the last minute following a mysterious assassination attempt against one hopeful, but the vote is going ahead after he declined to request a delay.

The authorities will be above all hoping for peaceful polls to improve prospects of European integration after the disputed presidential elections that brought Sarkisian to power in 2008 ended in clashes leaving 10 people dead.

Sarkisian has called for the elections to be "exemplary", saying that the landlocked and resource-poor country has "no future" if its polls cannot correspond to European standards.

"Armenia does not have oil and gas like (its neighbour and foe) Azerbaijan. The only serious factor in relations with Europe can be a democratic image," said the head of the Armenian sociological association, Gevorg Pogosyan.

Most opinion polls give Sarkisian a strong lead and fractured opposition forces have failed to find a common challenger to the incumbent leader.

Sarkisian, 59, is a veteran of the 1990s war with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh and derives much of his popularity from a tough can-do militaristic image.

A fanatical chess player who heads the Armenian chess federation, his foreign policy seems itself like a canny chess game with tiny Armenia managing to be friends with NATO, Russia and powerful neighbour Iran.

-- 'Already clear in December' --

The outcome became predictable in December, when two influential political figures capable of injecting some suspense into the campaign announced they would not run.

The highly popular leader of the Prosperous Armenia party, super-rich former arm wrestling champion Gagik Tsarukian, said he was out of race.

And another potentially heavyweight candidate, Armenia's first post-Soviet president Levon Ter-Petrosian, said that at age 68 he is too old for the country's top job.

"The outcome of the elections was already clear in December last year," said the director of the Caucasus Media Institute, Alexander Iskandarian.

The leading challenger is Armenia's ex-foreign minister Raffi Hovanissian, 54, who was born in the United States and used to practise as a lawyer in Los Angeles.

The Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hayrikyan -- the target of the assassination bid -- and former premier Hrant Bagratian are the other main figures among seven challengers to Sarkisian.

Sarkisian was on course to poll 68 percent against Hovanissian's 24 percent, while Hayrikyan and Bagratian have single-digit approval ratings, according to a poll by the Gallup International Association.

The campaign was marred by violence when Hayrikyan -- a Soviet-era dissident who spent several years in prisons as a supporter of Armenian independence -- was wounded in an apparent assassination bid on January 31.

All candidates are making populist promises to fight poverty and unemployment.

Some 36 percent of Armenians live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. During the last two decades, economic hardship and unemployment drove nearly a million Armenians out of the country of 3.3 million.

Campaigning also focused on Armenia's long-running disputes with arch-foe neighbours Turkey and Azerbaijan.

No final peace deal has been reached with Azerbaijan since the 1990s war over Nagorny Karabakh and the risk of a new conflict remains palpable.

The normalisation process with Ankara -- which could have ended decades of enmity over the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire -- has stalled after Turkey faced a backlash from Azerbaijan and the opposition at home.

During his campaign, Sarkisian vowed massive military retaliation if Azerbaijan tries to retake Karabakh by force and pledged to pursue efforts for international recognition of the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide.

International observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe will monitor voting, which starts at 0400 GMT on Monday and ends at 1600 GMT.

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