YEREVAN -- Armenians voted in snap elections on June 20 with tensions running high following a monthslong political crisis fueled by the defeat of Armenian forces against Azerbaijan in a six-week war last autumn over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Preliminary results with only 8 percent of precincts counted showed Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian's Civil Contract party leading with 61.7 percent of the votes ahead of former President Robert Kocharian's Armenia Alliance with 17.6 percent.
Prosperous Armenia, a party led by business tycoon Gagik Tsarukian, was third with 5.32 percent of the vote.
More results were expected to roll in over the course of the morning.
The Central Election Commission said nearly 50 percent of around 2.6 million eligible voters cast their ballots.
"On the whole, the election was conducted in accordance with the country's legislation," said the head of the Central Electoral Commission, Tigran Mukuchian.
With a total of 21 parties and four alliances taking part in the election, the final political constellation that emerges may not be known for days or even weeks if no party secures a majority.
Opinion polls before the election showed the contest to be mainly a neck-and-neck race between Pashinian's party and Kocharian's newly created alliance, with each mustering about 24 percent support.
A voter in Yerevan told RFE/RL that he voted for peace and unity.
"Be it Nikol [Pashinian], Robert [Kocharian] or anyone else, they should take care of the nation and raise it back to its feet," the man said.
Pashinian called the early elections in response to sustained opposition rallies and dissent within the state over his handling of the war that ended with a Moscow-brokered cease-fire in November.
Pashinian, who swept to power after leading large anti-establishment protests in 2018 that ousted his predecessor, stepped down as required by law to allow the election to take place but remains the country's leader. The new parliament could restore him to the post or choose a new prime minister.
Despite Pashinian's dwindling poll numbers, down from 60 percent before the war, the former journalist has shown he can still draw thousands of supporters to rallies.
The fragile peace deal restored Baku's sovereignty over a chunk of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts that had been controlled by ethnic Armenian forces since a war in the early 1990s. The defeat stunned Armenians, and prompted months of recriminations and political infighting.
Pashinian has defended the deal, saying it prevented Turkish-backed Azerbaijani forces from taking control over the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region. He has also blamed previous administrations for wasting diplomatic opportunities and endemic corruption that left the military unprepared.
More than 6,000 people were killed in the autumn war and thousands of civilians displaced, while the Armenia-Azerbaijan border area remains tense and the long-term fate of the peace deal uncertain. The issue of prisoners of war and other detainees is a potent social issue as well.
Kocharian, a native of Nagorno-Karabakh, ran a campaign promising security, economic growth, and resolving political tensions.
"I voted for a dignified peace and economic growth, this is my choice," Kocharian told reporters after casting his ballot on June 20.
In addition to being president between 1998 and 2008, he was one of the leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh's separatist forces during the early 1990s war and became the region's first de facto president between 1994 and 1997.
While president of Armenia, he was accused of acting unlawfully by sending police to disperse postelection protests in Yerevan in 2008. Eight demonstrators and two police officers died in the clashes.
Pashinian was one of the organizers of the 2008 protest and was ultimately jailed until being released in 2011 under a government amnesty.
Kocharian was later charged over the deadly crackdown on protesters and spent about a year and a half in pretrial detention. He was cleared of criminal charges earlier this year in a case the former president said was a politically motivated attack by Pashinian, but still faces a separate corruption probe.
During the 12-day election campaign, emotionally charged threats and insults raised concerns of postelection violence, especially in the event of allegations that the result is rigged or otherwise challenged. More than a dozen opposition candidates and activists were detained during the campaign, accused of bullying or bribing voters.
On the eve of the election, the largely ceremonial President Armen Sarkisian urged voters to remain peaceful, saying it would be unacceptable that "political and moral boundaries are crossed, that the situation escalates and hatred and enmity are fomented."
The outcome of the vote may hinge on which smaller parties clear a 5 percent threshold and which political alliances cross the required 7 percent hurdle to enter parliament.
If no party or alliance wins an outright majority, Pashinian or Kocharian will have six days to cobble together a coalition with smaller parties.
Failure to find a coalition leads to a runoff vote between the two top parties or alliances that determines the final distribution of seats under Armenia's so-called "stable majority" rule.
That provision automatically gives the winner of the runoff 54 percent of the legislature's seats. Remaining seats would be divided as mandated by the first-round results.
Many analysts say the country is likely to either have a coalition government or face a runoff.