PM wins Armenia presidential vote, opposition calls protest

Armenia Materials 20 February 2008 11:47 (UTC +04:00)

( AFP ) - Armenia's Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian has won the country's presidential election, official results showed Wednesday, but his opponents cried foul and vowed to stage a mass protest.

With 97.5 percent of the vote counted, Sarkisian had 844,088 votes, compared to 344,619 for his nearest rival, former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, according to official results shown on Armenian Public Television.

That gave Sarkisian 52.7 percent of the votes counted so far, followed by Ter-Petrosian with 21.5 percent and former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian with 16.8 percent.

The poll victory clears the way for 53-year-old Sarkisian to take over from his close ally, outgoing President Robert Kocharian.

Even before polls had closed, Ter-Petrosian's campaign team had denounced the vote as a fraud and called for a mass rally in the capital Yerevan on Wednesday.

The call to protest raised fears of unrest in a country known for its volatile politics. Tens of thousands gathered for opposition rallies ahead of the vote.

Ter-Petrosian, Armenia's president between 1991 and 1998, said election day had been marred by serious violations.

"Very dirty things are happening," he said after voting.

His campaign spokesman Arman Musinian said that dozens of Ter-Petrosian's supporters had been beaten Tuesday across the country. He also claimed that ballot stuffing, multiple voting and voter intimidation had been widespread.

"It's already clear that this is not an election. This is an attempt by the authorities to seize power," Musinian told AFP.

Voter turnout was 69.25 percent, the Central Elections Commission reported.

Kocharian handpicked the prime minister to succeed him after Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia swept parliamentary polls last May. After two five-year terms, Kocharian was constitutionally barred from running again.

Analysts predict Sarkisian will follow in Kocharian's footsteps, pursuing close ties with Moscow and a hawkish stance in relations with neighbouring Azerbaijan and Turkey.

The latter two have cut diplomatic ties and sealed their borders with Armenia over its support for Armenian separatists in Nagorny Karabakh.

Ankara has also been angered by Yerevan's campaign to have the World War I-era "mass killings" of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire recognised as genocide.

Ter-Petrosian has called for a more conciliatory approach with Azerbaijan and Turkey, saying the government has left Armenia deeply isolated.

About 600 foreign observers were monitoring the vote. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was due to issue a report on the election Wednesday.