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Elections

Armenians head to polls amid presidential election pall

Incumbent Serge Sarkisian looks set for outright victory in the first round of presidential elections. Polling stations have opened in an election marred by an assassination attempt and a hunger strike.

Opinion polls gave President Serge Sarkisian a commanding lead heading into Armenia's presidential election, pointing to an outright victory in the first round of voting.  A Gallup International poll published on February 7 predicted that the incumbent would win 68 percent of the vote, with the closest of seven challengers, Raffi Hovanessian, polling at 24 percent.

Third-placed Paruir Airikian was placed a distant third in the Gallup poll. Monday's election date was thrown into doubt when Airikian was shot in the shoulder on February 1 in an apparent assassination attempt. Under Armenian law, an election can be postponed by two weeks if a candidate is unable to campaign or run, but Airikian ultimately waived his right to delay the ballot having previously said that he would request more time.

Another fringe candidate, political analyst Andrias Gukasian, started a hunger strike outside the national academy of sciences on January 21 when the campaign kicked off; he accuses Sarkisian's party of widespread vote-buying.

Sarkisian is seeking a second term in the landlocked country that borders Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran, having taken office in 2008.

Clear piece advantage

The 59-year-old president is a war veteran from the country's 1988-1994 war with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. During the campaign he appealed for the election to be "exemplary," saying the ex-Soviet state would have "no future" unless it could conform with European standards.

A keen chess player and head of the country's chess federation, Sarkisian has sought to maintain positive relations with the EU, NATO, Russia and Iran alike.

The front-running challenger Hovanessian was Armenia's first post-Soviet era foreign minister. The 54-year-old has criticized Sarkisian during the campaign for allowing Armenia to fall behind its comparatively resource-rich former foe Azerbaijan.

Armenia's faltering economy took a big hit during the recession of 2008-9, logging a 14.2-percent contraction in 2009. The country has rebounded in recent years, however, logging around 7 percent growth in 2012 and trimming inflation down to 3.2 percent from 9.4 percent in 2010. Still, more than 30 percent of Armenians live below the poverty line.

Roughly 2.5 million Armenians are eligible to vote, according to the country's Central Election Commission.

msh/mkg (AFP, AP, Reuters)