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Armenian president set for re-election, exit polls say
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian looked set to win another five-year term on Monday, exit polls showed, but a lack of serious rivals and the non-fatal shooting of an opposition candidate cast a shadow over the vote.
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian was set for a triumphant re-election Monday in polls seen as a crucial democratic test for the ex-Soviet state but which the opposition claimed were plagued by multiple violations.
Sarkisian, president since 2008, was set to win another five-year term with 58 percent of the vote, an exit poll by Gallup said after close of polls.
His nearest rival, former foreign minister Raffi Hovannisian, was set to come second with 32 percent. Former prime minister Hrant Bagratian was on course for three percent as was the Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hayrikyan, the exit poll said.
"These elections were the best in the history of independent Armenia," said deputy parliament speaker Eduard Sharmazanov who is also the spokesman of Sarkisian's ruling Republican Party.
"For the Republican Party and the president the most important thing was the quality of the elections," he said, denying that there had been any serious violations. "The exit poll results show that Serzh Sarkisian was the only favourite."
The vote was marked with the absence of strong opposition to the incumbent leader and shadowed by last month's mysterious assassination attempt against Hayrikyan which at one point risked derailing the holding of the ballot.
The authorities were hoping for a peaceful process that will improve the country's chances of European integration, after the vote that brought Sarkisian to power in 2008 ended in clashes in which 10 people died.
Hovannisian said the election marked "the most crucial day in our country's modern history" but denounced irregularities in voters' lists and voting procedures.
His campaign alleged a range of sometimes bizarre violations, ranging from the use of "vanishing ink" to allow multiple voting and "caravans" of taxis and buses to take pro-government voters to the polls.
"These were shameful elections with a huge number of violations. The results of the exit poll do not show reality but what the authorities wanted," Hovannisian's spokesman Hovsep Khurshudian told AFP.
He vowed that Hovannisian's supporters would hold a protest meeting on Tuesday evening.
The police dismissed the allegations of violations as an "obvious fiction." Turnout was 60.05 percent, the Central Elections Commission said. The first results are expected to trickle through early Tuesday morning.
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.
Hovannisian, 54, was born in the United States and used to practise law in Los Angeles before moving to Armenia following its devastating earthquake of December 1988.
"I voted for Serzh (Sarkisian). He can lead the army and take important decisions at the right moment," carpenter Vazgen Akobyan told AFP at a polling station in Yerevan.
"I support Raffi Hovannisian. He has a Western mentality, he is intelligent, he promised to fight corruption and create new jobs," said another voter, unemployed Siranush Mnatsmkanyan.
All the candidates have been busy making populist promises to fight poverty and unemployment.
The World Bank estimates that 36 percent of Armenians live below the poverty line. Economic hardship and unemployment have driven nearly a million Armenians out of the country over the past two decades.
But campaigning has also focused on Armenia's long-running disputes with arch-foe neighbours Turkey and Azerbaijan.
No final peace deal has been reached with Azerbaijan over the Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani region of Nagorny Karabakh as the risk of a new conflict remains palpable.
The outcome had become predictable in December when the highly popular leader of the Prosperous Armenia party -- the super-rich former arm-wrestling champion Gagik Tsarukian -- said he was out of the race and Armenia's first post-Soviet president Levon Ter-Petrosian said he was too old for the country's top job.
International observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe have monitored voting and are scheduled to give their verdict at a news conference on Tuesday.