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Armenia votes in parliamentary polls

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Armenians voted for a new parliament on Sunday in elections seen largely as a straight fight between the governing Republican party and its coalition partner.

Opinion polls suggested that President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican party was ahead of its ally in the outgoing coalition, the Prosperous Armenia party, led by Gagik Tsarukian, a super-rich former arm wrestling champion.

"I want everything to be calm, peaceful and in accordance with our laws today, tomorrow and the day afterwards. This is a guarantee of progress," Sarkisian told journalists after casting his ballot in Yerevan, the capital.

Opposition parties were reported to be trailing.

Vote conduct scrutinised

Turnout was 15.8 per cent at 11am (0700 GMT), three hours after voting began, the Central Election Commission said.

Around 2.5 million people, out of a population of 3.3 million people, are eligible to vote in the elections, which are being contested by eight parties and one bloc.

Some 350 European observers and 31,000 local monitors are scrutinising the conduct of the polls, which close at 8pm local time.

"I am for change but without drastic upheavals. We need stability," one voter at a polling station in the capital, electrician Garnik Khacheian, told the AFP news agency.

"I voted for fairness. It's impossible to live in a country where human rights are not observed, where there is no work and there are the very rich and those who have nothing," said unemployed voter Alvard, who declined to give her surname.

Sarkisian had been criticised for continuing Friday's campaign event after the incident which saw scores of promotional balloons burst into flames as people screamed in panic.

Rigging allegations

The elections are the biggest test of the ex-Soviet state's fragile democratic credentials since a disputed presidential vote in 2008 which ended in fatal clashes.

The Armenian National Congress opposition bloc led by Levon Ter-Petrosian, a former president, has alleged that the governing party is planning to rig the vote to keep power and has threatened protests.

"If the elections are normal, we will agree with any result," Ter-Petrosian said after voting.

Demonstrations have also not been ruled out by Prosperous Armenia, whose musclebound leader Tsarukian keeps lions at his opulent villa outside Yerevan and is seen by supporters as a benevolent hero for his donations to the poor.

Campaigning ended in chaos on Friday when scores of gas-filled balloons exploded at a Republican party rally in Yerevan led by Sarkisian, unleashing a fireball into the air and injuring almost 150 people.

The authorities promised an unprecedentedly clean contest for the 131-seat National Assembly in the hope of avoiding any turmoil after battles between riot police and opposition supporters four years ago left 10 people dead.

A pre-poll report by observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) did not register systematic violations, although media reports alleged that some parties have been bribing potential voters.

Campaigning in the Caucasus state of 3.3 million people mainly focused on issues of unemployment, poverty and emigration rather than Armenia's long-running political disputes with neighbours Turkey and Azerbaijan.


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