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Armenian Voters Prepare to Elect New Parliament

Armenians go to the polls this Saturday in a parliamentary election seen as a key test for democracy ahead of next year's presidential vote. VOA's Lisa McAdams in Moscow reports two pro-government parties are running strong against a field of nearly 20 opposition parties.

Armenia has not had an election deemed free and fair by international observers since gaining independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. This Saturday's vote will be closely watched.

With elections for a new president just one year away, the international community has made it clear that is wants to see an improvement over Armenia's last parliamentary elections, in 2003, when there were widespread allegations of voter fraud.

The United States says millions of dollars in aid to Armenia could be threatened if the election is deemed unfair. The European Union, Armenia's primary trading partner, also says a fair election is necessary for Armenia to continue participating in its European Neighborhood Policy program.

Yevgeni Volk, the Director of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office, says Armenia's authorities know they must produce a better parliamentary election than in 2003. But either way, he says, the country is destined for change.

"Whoever wins in the election, even those forces mostly associated with Russia, I believe that they will have to review their policies toward more openness toward the European Union and NATO, just because Russia can not offer Armenia reliable, economic and political prospects for the future," he noted.

Volk notes that more than 30 percent of Armenia's 3 million people live on less than $2 a day. Discontent is high, he says, but so too is voter apathy.

Despite growing discontent, few of Armenia's opposition parties are expected to secure the five percent threshold needed to join parliament. Volk and other analysts say that is because the political opposition made a tactical error in failing to unite under a single anti-government banner.

Opposition leaders are already warning of possible fraud in Saturday's election and say they will organize mass street protests, if they consider the vote unfair.

Analyst Volk says much will depend on the election results.

"If the margin between the winners and losers will be narrow, I believe it will really cause some kinds of protests and violence, which will be difficult to deal with," he added. "If the gap will be larger, I believe the opposition will feel weaker."

There have already been several incidents of election-related violence leading up to Saturday's vote and, in the final week of campaigning, authorities in Armenia announced the arrest of opposition activist Alexander Arzumanian on money-laundering charges.

The arrest significantly raised opposition fears that the upcoming parliamentary vote will be neither free, nor fair. Pro-government parties deny there will be falsification and say voters will back the government's record.

Two pro-government parties, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, led by presidential favorite Serge Sarkisian, and the Prosperous Armenia party of Gagik Tsarukian, are expected to sweep the election.

The outcome of Saturday's election is likely to dictate the course of the country's presidential vote in 2008. Sarkisian, the acting prime minister and President Robert Kocharyan's friend and favored successor, is expected by analysts to easily defeat the opposition when voters in go to the polls next year.