In what is sure to spark opposition protests, preliminary results from the presidential elections in Armenia suggest the current Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian, the preferred successor of incumbent President Robert Kocharian, has gained enough votes to secure a first-round victory.
Sarkisian scored 52.9% to secure a first-round win over former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, who secured 21.5%, elections commission chairman Garegin Azarian said after all votes had been counted. Former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian took 16.6%.
Even before the polls had closed, Ter-Petrosian's campaign team decried the vote as a fraud and called for a mass rally in Yerevan on Wednesday, February 20. Ter-Petrosian, claims the government is guilty of "mass bribing, ballot stuffing, [and] voting list falsifications."
Despite the allegations, Europe's main election monitoring body, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said the vote had "mostly" met international standards.
The result is unlikely to please the West much. After President Kocharyan, Sarkisian is regarded as the second most influential official in Armenia and is openly pro-Russian. In fact, analysts say his candidacy has been somewhat openly sponsored by Moscow. On February 6, just two weeks before the election, Sarkisian met Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov in Moscow during which a number of bilateral economic agreements were signed. Strong political ties with Russia are an important factor in sustaining Armenia's double-digit growth. Gazprom sells natural gas to the republic at $110 per 1,000 cubic metres, far below prices that Gazprom charges its customers elsewhere in the CIS and in Europe.
Welfare and social issues were the main domestic issues addressed by candidates during the campaign. However, the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, over which Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bloody war from 1988-94 and which is now occupied by Armenian forces, was also a hot-button topic, especially in light of Kosovo's declaration of independence on February 17. Ter-Petrossian and Sarkisian have long-standing differences over how to tackle the issue of formally resolving the conflict.
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