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Ruling Republican Party Wins 'Tainted' Armenian Elections


President Serzh Sarkisian casts his ballot at a polling station in Yerevan on April 2.
President Serzh Sarkisian casts his ballot at a polling station in Yerevan on April 2.

YEREVAN -- Official results indicate that President Serzh Sarkisian's ruling Republican Party of Armenia has won about half the votes cast in parliamentary elections that international observers said were "tainted" by reports of vote-buying and pressure on voters.

The Central Election Commission said on April 3 said that with ballots counted from almost all precincts in the April 2 vote, the Republican Party had won 49.15 percent and the center-right Tsarukian alliance, led by Russia-friendly tycoon Gagik Tsarukian, had 27.37 percent.

Republican Party (HHK) spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov told a news conference that the results meant the party "has every chance of forming the new government" in the South Caucasus state, which is set to shift to a parliamentary system of rule next year.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other groups said the vote was "tainted by credible information about vote-buying" and pressure on voters, according to a statement posted on the OSCE website.

It said the interference "contributed to an overall lack of public confidence and trust in the elections."

The pro-Western opposition alliance Yelk (Way Out) got 7.78 percent of the vote, enough to secure entry into parliament, the election commission said.

It said the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (HHD-Dashnaktsutiun), a nationalist party that is currently in a ruling coalition with the Republicans, was also on track to win seats, with 6.58 percent.

Turnout was 60.86 percent, the election commission said.

The Tsarukian alliance and the HHD are potential coalition partners for Sarkisian's HHK if it does not win enough votes to form a government on its own.

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Nine parties and alliances were seeking seats in parliament in a campaign that focused mostly on economic difficulties in the country of 3 million.

Gross domestic product (GDP) growth dropped from 3 percent in 2015 to 0.2 percent last year in the former Soviet republic, whose economy is heavily dependent on Russia.

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.

WATCH: Armenians Vote As Nation Shifts Toward Parliamentary Governance

Armenians Vote As Nation Shifts Toward Parliamentary Governance
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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.

Coalition Puzzle

It was not clear ahead of the election whether Tsarukian would be willing to form a coalition again with Sarkisian's party if his alliance did not receive enough votes to govern on its own.

"Everything now depends on our people," Tsakurian said after casting his ballot in his native village of Arinj north of Yerevan. "They are the ones who decide," he added.

Businessman Gagik Tsarukian, who heads the center-right Tsarukian alliance
Businessman Gagik Tsarukian, who heads the center-right Tsarukian alliance

Before breaking away and branding itself as an opposition force, Tsarukian's bloc had been a coalition partner of the Republican Party.

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a smaller party currently in the ruling coalition with the Republicans, could help Sarkisian's party form a majority coalition if Tsarukian is unwilling to do so.

To win parliamentary seats, a party needed at least 5 percent of the vote and alliances needed at least 7 percent.

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."

On election day, a reporter with RFE/RL's Armenian Service was attacked in Yerevan’s Kond neighborhood after investigating allegations of vote-buying at a local campaign office of the ruling HHK.

Another female reporter was also attacked outside the HHK office in Kond when she started filming people visiting it.

The Prosecutor-General's Office said more than 220 criminal allegations of voter fraud were under investigation and that it had reports of significant problems with new voter identity devices that failed to recognize hundreds of voters, including the president.

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.

WATCH: In Armenia, Several Reporters Attacked While Covering Elections

In Armenia, Several Reporters Attacked While Covering Elections
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For many, low 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.

With reporting by Ron Synovitz in Prague, Suren Musayelyan in Yerevan, AP, Reuters, and AFP
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