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Armenian president triumphs in 'uncompetitive' polls

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian votes at a poling station in Yerevan, on February 18, 2013
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian votes at a poling station in Yerevan, on February 18, 2013. Sarkisian has won re-election with over 58 percent of the vote, official results published Tuesday showed, as his main rival cried foul.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian Tuesday celebrated a crushing victory in elections for a second five-year mandate but his rival alleged violations and observers complained the polls lacked competition.

Sarkisian, a shrewd former military officer in power since 2008, won Monday's polls in the small ex-Soviet state nestled in the Caucasus mountains between Turkey and Iran with 58.64 percent of the votes.

His nearest rival, former foreign minister Raffi Hovannisian trailed in a distant second place with 36.75 percent of votes, the central election commission said after counting results from all the precincts.

"These elections have again shown that the Armenian people can unite and take the right decision at the most important moments," Sarkisian told supporters at his campaign headquarters.

"I am proud and hope that all who did not vote for me understand the choice of the majority and we develop the country under a stable situation," he said.

Armenians vote at a polling station in Yerevan, on February 18, 2013
Armenians vote at a polling station in Yerevan, on February 18, 2013. Authorities were hoping for a peaceful process that would improve the country's chances of European integration.

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's camp alleged a range of sometimes bizarre electoral violations, including the use of "disappearing ink" to allow multiple voting.

"These were shameful elections with a huge number of violations," Hovannisian's spokesman Hovsep Khurshudian told AFP.

The US-born Hovannisian, who used to practise as a lawyer in Los Angeles, said that Sarkisian should acknowledge the elections were a victory not for him but for the Armenian people. "The people were victorious by making clear their will in the elections," he told reporters during the count.

Members of the Armenian election committee count ballots at a poling station in Yerevan on February 18, 2013
Members of the Armenian election committee count ballots at a poling station in Yerevan on February 18, 2013. Voter turnout was 60 percent in the polls seen as a crucial democratic test for the former Soviet state.

Voter turnout was 60 percent in the polls seen as a crucial democratic test for the country.

Observers from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly said the elections were an improvement on past polls but lacked real competition after two leading candidates pulled out late last year.

"This election showed improvement, but lacked genuine competition," said Tonino Picula, the head of the OSCE PA mission.

"Competition is critical if Armenia is going to live up to the aspirations of its people for a vibrant and engaging democracy."

The observers said the voting process was well organised but confirmed the ink used to stamp passports at polling stations and prove a voter had cast their ballot was not secure.

An Armenian casts his ballot at a poling station in Yerevan, on February 18, 2013
An Armenian casts his ballot at a poling station in Yerevan on February 18, 2013. International observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe have monitored voting and are set to give their verdict on Tuesday.

The ink "did not provide the intended safeguard against multiple voting as the ink could easily be wiped off," they said in a statement.

The authorities had above all been hoping for a peaceful and internationally-praised process that would improve the country's chances of European integration.

The vote that brought Sarkisian to power in 2008 ended in clashes between police and supporters of the defeated opposition candidate in which 10 people died.

Former prime minister Hrant Bagratian came in third with just over two percent of the vote, while Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hayrikyan came in fourth.

The election was also clouded by a mysterious assassination attempt against Hayrikyan last month that at one point risked derailing the polls entirely. But the candidate in the end opted not to use his right to ask for a delay.

The outcome was already clear in December when the highly popular leader of the Prosperous Armenia party -- 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.

The OSCE PA said the lack of other top candidates "seems to have contributed to apathy and a lack of trust among voters" as campaigns focused on personalities rather than political platforms.

Sarkisian now has a major task to fight poverty and unemployment with the World Bank estimating that 36 percent of Armenians live below the poverty line. Economic hardship has driven nearly a million Armenians out of the country over the past two decades.

Meanwhile no final peace deal has yet been reached with Azerbaijan over the Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani region of Nagorny Karabakh as the risk of a new conflict remains palpable.

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