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February 18, 2013

Exit Poll Says Armenians Re-Elect President Sargsyan

by James Brooke

After the shooting of one presidential candidate and the hunger strike of another, Armenian voters opted for stability on Monday, re-electing President Serzh Sargsyan, according to an authoritative exit poll.

The Gallup exit poll was carried out among 19,130 voters at 122 polling stations across this landlocked former Soviet republic.

The exit poll gave the president 58 percent of the vote, slightly more than the 53 percent won in his first presidential election in 2008. With his election to a second and final five-year term, the ruling Republican Party’s hold on Armenia now will stretch for 18 years.

Voters select continuity

After casting his ballot in Yerevan, Sargsyan praised stability.

"I voted for the future of Armenia, for the security of Armenia, for the security of our citizens," said Sargsyan, who rose to national prominence two decades ago after leading ethnic-Armenian soldiers who rebelled against Azerbaijani rule in the neighboring region of Nagorno Karabakh.

Critics say Armenia’s status quo means average salaries of $75 a week, however, with one third of the population living under the poverty level, and one third of Armenian adults forced to work outside the country.

The opposition vote coalesced around Raffi Hovannisian, an American-born former foreign minister. The exit poll gave him 32 percent of the vote, about double the level predicted in pre-election polls.

Accusations hurled

Despite this apparent surge, Hovannisian’s campaign aides charged the president used fraud to try to boost his turnout over the 50 percent threshold to win on the first round. In meeting with reporters late Monday, the opposition candidate claimed victory in Armenian, Russian and English.

“This victory, this struggle which I claim today belongs to the Armenian people, to the citizens of Armenia,” he said in English.

In contrast, Eduard Sharmazanov, spokesman for the Republican Party and Deputy Speaker of Armenia’s parliament predicted: “These elections will definitely be the best, with a minimal number of abuses reported.”

Sixty percent of registered voters cast ballots, well below the 70-percent level of five years ago. This time, the three largest opposition parties refused to launch presidential candidates. Their supporters said they could not win against an incumbent president using the government machinery to get votes.

Sarkis Agabikyan supervised one voting station in Yerevan. Interviewed near the end of the voting day, he described the turnout as very, very bad.

“I think that there is no interest in these elections,” said Agabikyan, aged 24. “There is only one candidate, Serzh Sargsyan. He is now the president, and there is no united opposition. In my opinion, this is the main reason why people are passive.”

Drama and tumult

During the four-week campaign, one candidate was shot, one went on a hunger strike, one dropped out, and two refused to vote. Despite this bumpy road, voters appeared to show little interest. After the president and his main challengers, none of the other candidates got more than five percent of votes.

"Much of the population has been returning to a degree of apathy and disgust, or discontent with all of the political candidates and parties,” said Richard Giragosian, who directs the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan.

On Tuesday, international observers are to deliver their verdict on the fairness of the vote. Armenia is one of several former republics struggling to adopt democracy 21 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.