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Armenia leader set for easy election win

Armenian president Serzh Sarkisian (R) talks to local residents while campaigning in Ashtarak on February 14, 2013
Armenian president Serzh Sarkisian (R) talks to local residents while campaigning in Ashtarak on February 14, 2013. Armenians voted Monday in presidential polls marked by lack of any serious challenge to Sarkisian and shadowed by an assassination attempt

Armenians voted Monday in presidential polls marked by lack of any serious challenge to incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian and shadowed by an assassination attempt against a rival candidate.

The poll will test the democratic credentials of the small Caucasus nation two decades after the Soviet Union's collapse, a period defined by dangerous tensions with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorny Karabakh.

The authorities are above all 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.

"I voted today for Armenia's future -- for the well-being of our citizens and families," Sarkisian said after voting in a central polling station in the capital Yerevan.

He has previously called for the elections to be "exemplary" and stressed that resource-poor country of three million had "no future" if its polls cannot correspond to European standards.

Armenian presidential candidate Raffi Hovannisian addresses his supporters in Yerevan on February 16, 2013
Armenian presidential candidate Raffi Hovannisian addresses his supporters in Yerevan on February 16, 2013. The Gallup International Association shows Serzh Sarkisian on course to win 68% of the vote against Hovannisian's 24%.

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

The 59-year-old Sarkisian 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 remain friends with NATO, Russia and powerful neighbour Iran.

The top challenger is the 54-year-old former foreign minister Raffi Hovannisian. He 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.

The Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hayrikyan -- the target of a January 31 assassination attempt that nearly delayed the polls -- and ex-premier Hrant Bagratian are the other main figures among six challengers to Sarkisian.

Armenian presidential candidate Paruyr Hayrikyan lies in a hospital bed in Yerevan on February 1, 2013
Armenian presidential candidate Paruyr Hayrikyan lies in a hospital bed in Yerevan on February 1, 2013.

The Gallup International Association shows Sarkisian on course to win 68 percent of the vote against Hovannisian's 24 percent. Hayrikyan has single-digit approval ratings.

International observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe will monitor voting which was scheduled to end at 1600 GMT.

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 -- the super-rich former arm-wrestling champion Gagik Tsarukian -- said he was out of race.

And 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 director Alexander Iskandarian.

But 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.

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 since the 1990s war over the Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani region of Nagorny Karabakh as the risk of a new conflict remains palpable.

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