Armenia counts votes in tight parliamentary poll

Vote counting was underway in Armenia after a tight post-war parliamentary election that pitted reformist leader Nikol Pashinyan against ex-president Robert Kocharyan on Sunday.

Pashinyan called the snap election after last year’s devastating war with Azerbaijan plunged the post-Soviet country into crisis, but observers fear the results could further polarise society.

Analysts say the election result is nearly impossible to predict, with both Pashinyan and Kocharyan drawing massive crowds on the eve of the polls and planning post-election rallies.

Polls closed at 8:00 pm (1600 GMT), and the first official results were expected later Sunday.

“On the whole, the election was conducted in accordance with the country’s legislation,” said the head of the Central Electoral Commission, Tigran Mukuchyan.

The election was being followed by Armenia’s Soviet-era master Russia, arch-foe Azerbaijan and Turkey, which backed Azerbaijan in the six-week war over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Despite stifling heat, nearly 50 percent of around 2.6 million eligible voters cast their ballots, election officials said. Some observers said turnout in this South Caucasus country of three million people was higher than expected.

“I am voting for the future of our state and people, for the development of Armenia,” Pashinyan said on Facebook.

During a campaign marred by polarising rhetoric, he said he expected his Civil Contract party to secure 60 percent of the vote, though some pollsters say that estimate is far-fetched.

His rival Kocharyan, who hails from Karabakh and was in power between 1998 and 2008, appeared in good spirits as he showed up at a Yerevan polling station.

“I voted for worthy peace and economic growth,” he said.

– ‘Against old ways’ –

On the streets of Yerevan, Armenians voiced conflicting opinions about Pashinyan.

Voter Anahit Sargsyan said the prime minister deserved another chance. She feared the return of the old guard whom she accused of plundering the country, she added.

“I voted against a return to the old ways,” said the 63-year-old former teacher. 

Another voter, Vardan Hovhannisyan, said he had cast his ballot for Kocharyan, who calls Russian leader Vladimir Putin his friend.

“I voted for secure borders, solidarity in society, the return of our war prisoners, the well-being of the wounded and a strong army,” said the 41-year-old musician. 

Critics accuse Pashinyan of ceding territory in and around Karabakh to Azerbaijan in a humiliating truce agreement, and of failing to deliver reforms.

Pashinyan says he had to agree to the Moscow-brokered peace deal with Azerbaijan in order to prevent further human and territorial losses.

More than 6,500 people were killed in the war, according to the latest official figures from Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Besides Kocharyan, two other leaders of post-Soviet Armenia are backing parties in the race. All three oppose Pashinyan.

Voting was held in a relatively calm atmosphere, but Kocharyan called for a probe into the appearance of leaflets attacking him.

His bloc also alleged irregularities and said the security service had searched its campaign offices in the southern town of Sisian.

Kocharyan was himself accused of rigging a presidential election in favour of his hand-picked ally and presiding over a deadly crackdown on protesters in 2008. 

Armenia won international praise for holding its first free and fair vote under Pashinyan in 2018.

– Venomous campaign – 

During a venomous campaign, candidates exchanged insults and threats. Pashinyan, 46, brandished a hammer at rallies, while Kocharyan, 66, said he would be ready to fight the prime minister in a duel.

A poll released Friday by MPG, a group affiliated with Gallup International Association, had Kocharyan’s Armenia bloc leading narrowly with 28.7 percent to 25.2 percent for Pashinyan’s party. 

A record four electoral blocs and 21 parties are running for election but only a handful are expected to win five-year terms in parliament.

A winning party needs to obtain at least 50 percent of seats plus one and can be assigned additional seats in order to form a government. Analysts do not rule out a second round.

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