YEREVAN - Armenians vote Sunday in elections that will determine who guides the country through its planned transition to a parliamentary system of government next year.
Campaigns waged by by the nine parties and alliances seeking seats in parliament have focused mostly on the economic difficulties in the South Caucasus nation of 3 million.
Opinion polls point to a close race for the top spot between President Serzh Sarkisian’s ruling Republican Party of Armenia and a former coalition partner, the center-right Tsarukian Alliance led by pro-Russia tycoon Gagik Tarukian.
Under constitutional changes approved in a 2015 referendum, the Armenian prime minister’s office will become more powerful while the presidency is to become a largely ceremonial post elected by parliament.
Those changes are due to take place when Sarkisian’s second and final term ends in 2018. Critics charge that they were designed to allow him to stay in power beyond the presidency’s two-term limit.
Sarkisian denies that. But if the ruling party wins enough votes to control a parliamentary majority, either alone or in a coalition, he could continue to exercise executive power as prime minister.
He also could maintain clout by staying on as leader of his party, or he could exert influence through a handpicked successor.
Of the other eight parties or political blocs contesting the election, the Republican Party’s chief challenger is the Tsarukian Alliance.
Before breaking away and branding itself as an opposition force, Tsarukian had been a coalition partner of the Republican Party.
It was not clear ahead of the election whether Tsarukian would be willing to form a coalition again with Sarkisian’s party if, as the opinion polls suggest, neither wins enough votes to govern on its own.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a smaller party currently in the ruling coalition with the Republicans, could help Sarkisian’s party form a majority coalition is Tsarukian is unwilling to do so.
Polls left it uncertain whether that party will get enough votes to be represented in parliament.
To win parliamentary seats, a party must win at least 5 percent of the vote and an alliance of parties must win at least 7 percent.
The right-wing conservative ORO Alliance, a bloc formed by three former cabinet ministers, could clear the threshold and win parliamentary seats.
That alliance takes an even harder line than Sarkisian’s Republicans on negotiations with Baku toward a settlement on the long-running conflict over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Polls suggested three other political forces also have a chance to win parliamentary seats.
One is the Congress -- PPA Party Alliance of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, which puts an emphasis on making land-for-peace concessions with Baku in order to reach a settlement on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Another is the Armenian Renaissance Party, led by former parliament speaker and former security council chief Artur Baghdasarian.
Heavy election coverage
Baghdasarian owns the private television channel TV3, which has given heavy coverage to his party’s election campaign.
Polls suggest the centrist opposition Way Out Alliance, which has positioned itself as more pro-Western than its rivals, also was close to crossing the 7 percent barrier it needs to win parliamentary seats.
Opinion polls suggest that two smaller parties – the Communists and the pro-Western Free Democrats – are unlikely to win parliamentary seats.
Days ahead of the vote, the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan issued a joint statement with the European Union, Germany and the United Kingdom expressing concerns about allegations of irregularities since the campaign formally began on March 5.
The March 29 statement said diplomats were "aware of and concerned by" what it said were allegations of "voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties."
In its interim report on March 7, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)'s observation mission also noted allegations of "widespread vote-buying" and "the prevalent perception" of "pressure and intimidation of voters."
The OSCE mission also said that Armenia's major commercial television stations "are financed by business and political groups and are perceived as being strongly associated with the government, as is public TV."
The report said journalists had complained to monitors about "interference into editorial autonomy" and the "discouragement of critical reporting of the government on television."
Focus on daily life
The main focus of the campaign has been social and economic issues affecting day-to-day life in the former Soviet republic.
Two political forces, Nikol Pashinian’s Way Out and the Free Democrats Party, have sought to position themselves as more pro-Western than their rivals.
Political analysts say that’s because public anger over Armenia’s economic problems is even stronger now than in 2015, when thousands of demonstrators blocked a central boulevard in Yerevan to protest planned electricity-price hikes.
For many, law wages, high inflation, joblessness, and corruption have eclipsed the question of whether Armenia should remain within the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union or seek closer integration with Europe.
Russian weapons deliveries to Baku had been the topic of heated debate after an escalation of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh last year.
But in the parliamentary campaign, most political forces steered clear of those issues and the question of whether Armenia is more secure with Russia as its ally.
RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz in Prague and Suren Musayelyan in Yerevan contributed to this report.