Armenians voted for a new parliament on Sunday for the first time since the adoption of constitutional reforms aimed at transforming the ex-Soviet country into a parliamentary republic
A tight race is expected between the ruling party and a former coalition partner that heralds the start of a parliamentary system of government.
It is dominated between the ruling party of pro-Moscow President Serzh Sarkisian and a coalition of opposition parties led by Gagik Tsarukian, a former arm wrestler who is one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen.
Under constitutional changes critics say were designed to prolong the political life of Sarkisian, parliament, not voters, will elect the president for the first time. That role will become largely ceremonial while the office of prime minister will become more powerful.
Voting got under way at 0400 GMT and would last until 1600 GMT in the country with about 2.6 million eligible voters.
The election is seen by the West as a key democratic test for the small landlocked nation of 2.9 million, which has no history of transfers of power to an opposition through the ballot box.
Opposition politicians on Sunday reported violations at polling stations after previously warning that the government is preparing mass electoral fraud.
“We have recorded numerous violations at polling stations — violation of ballots’ secrecy and multiple voting,” Hovsep Khurshudyan, one of the leaders of the Ohanyan-Raffi-Oskanyan, an opposition coalition, told AFP.
Ahead of the vote, the European Union delegation to Armenia and the US embassy said in a joint statement that they were “concerned by allegations of voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties.”
There are also fears of violence after 10 people were killed in 2008 clashes between police and opposition supporters following Sarkisian’s election.
This time, the country aims to hold an exemplary vote to elect “a parliament trusted by society,” the president told AFP in an interview in March.
He said his government “has made enormous efforts so that (Sunday’s) milestone vote is flawless.”
Sarkisian, the 62-year-old leader of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), has repeatedly denied that the constitutional changes, which were approved by the electorate in a December 2015 referendum, were made for his benefit.
He has been president since 2008 but his second term expires next year. Under the new system, critics say, he could keep wielding executive power by becoming prime minister, stay active by remaining leader of the RPA or quit politics but keep exercising influence via a handpicked successor.
The outcome of Sunday’s vote was difficult to predict, with polls showing the RPA neck-and-neck with Tsarukian.
His alliance has ruled in coalition with the RPA before, but it is not clear whether it would agree to do so again if, as expected, it fails to win enough support to rule alone.
The ruling party still wields considerable support and its main campaigner, Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, who was appointed in September, is a popular figure and the RPA candidate for the post of the prime minister after this vote.
Many Armenians, however, accuse the government of corruption and of mishandling the troubled economy.
Armenia depends heavily for aid and investment on Russia, which has been hard hit in the past three years by an economic downturn. Armenia has felt the impact, with growth falling to 0.2 percent last year from 3.0 percent in 2015.
Political analysts say unrest could erupt after the vote, partly due to a growing malaise over the economic slowdown.