Exit Polls Point to Victory for Sarksyan

ReutersVoters and their families waiting in line outside a polling station in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on Wednesday.
YEREVAN, Armenia -- Prime Minister Serzh Sarksyan won Armenia's presidential election in the first round, an exit poll showed on Tuesday, but the opposition said voting was marred by beatings and ballot-stuffing.

Most observers say Sarksyan would pursue policies followed by President Robert Kocharyan during his decade in office. Poor and landlocked, Armenia relies heavily on a long-standing alliance with Moscow.

Sarksyan won 57 percent of the vote, way ahead of his nearest opposition challenger, former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, according to an exit poll by Britain's Populus pollster for Armenian public television.

Populus said Ter-Petrosyan scored 17.04 percent.

But Ter-Petrosyan's campaign office said staff had been beaten and even kidnapped at polling stations and vowed to hold a protest rally in Yerevan on Wednesday, opening the specter of mass protests that have followed previous elections.

Armenia at a Glance
Population: 3.22 million as of January 2007, according to the National Statistics Service.Ethnic Composition: More than 97 percent of the population is Armenian. There are small minorities of Russians, Kurds and Greeks.Geography: Landlocked, bordering Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Turkey, with a total area of 29,800 square kilometers.Language: Armenian is the official language. Russian and Kurdish are also spoken. Armenian belongs to a branch of the Indo-European family of languages and has a unique 39-character script.
Religion: Most Armenians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, an ancient, independent branch of Christianity. Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion, in 301.
Economy: Armenia's gross domestic product grew 13.7 percent in 2007, and annual inflation was 6.6 percent. Armenia joined the World Trade Organization in January 2003. Its national currency is the dram.
Key Industries: Agriculture, textiles, food processing, construction materials, diamond cutting, mining and chemicals are all major industries. Gold and molybdenum, a metal used to toughen steel, are mined, mainly for export.
History: Armenia says 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were killed in what it calls a genocide by Ottoman Turks in 1915-23. Turkey denies that the killings were a genocide. It says the Armenians were victims of a partisan war that also claimed many Muslim Turkish lives.An independent Armenian state existed from 1918 to 1921 but was swallowed up by Communist Russia in 1921, later becoming a republic of the Soviet Union, and once more gaining independence in 1991.As the Soviet Union disintegrated, Armenia became involved in a conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. About 35,000 people died in the conflict; hundreds of thousands fled. Most have been unable to return to the territory, which is part of Azerbaijan but has been controlled by Armenian forces since the fighting.

Source: Reuters

Polling stations closed at 8 p.m. in the mountainous, impoverished country of 3.2 million people, and the first official results were expected on Wednesday.

Armenia is squeezed between Turkey and Azerbaijan in a region that is emerging as an important transit route for oil exports from the Caspian Sea to European and world markets.

Misha Japaridze / AP
Serzh Sarksyan
Sarksyan, after voting in a Yerevan school, said the priority was for Armenia to conduct a free and fair election.

"It's not important whether the election will be held in one or two rounds. The most important point is that our election be trustworthy," Sarksyan said. The top two candidates will contest a runoff if no one tops 50 percent in the first round vote.

The rest of the field is led by former speaker of parliament Artur Baghdasaryan, as well as Ter-Petrosyan, a former president who was forced to resign in 1998 and is now seeking a comeback.

"I'm confident that I'll win in the first round ... I've voted for freedom," Ter-Petrosyan said after casting his ballot.

"There are some 'dirty things' already going on," he said, but declined to give details on specific cases.

Previous elections in Armenia have been followed by mass opposition protests alleging ballot fraud.

Misha Japaridze / AP
Levon Ter-Petrosian
Baghdasaryan also said there had been violations. "There is absolute chaos at one polling station in Yerevan ... which is impeding the voting process," said a spokeswoman for his campaign.

"At another polling station people were distributing ballots that were already filled in favor of one candidate."

Kocharyan, 53, is barred by the constitution from serving a third consecutive term. He is expected to remain influential but has refused to disclose what role he wants until his replacement is inaugurated.

"I think no one has any doubt about whom I would be voting for. I voted for stability and prosperity in Armenia," Kocharyan said, after casting a ballot at the same polling station as his prime minister.

"I voted for Sarksyan because I don't want Armenia to be plunged into chaos again," said Khachatur Babayan, 63, a doctor. Many Armenians associate Ter-Petrosyan's time in office with economic meltdown and power blackouts.

But others said they wanted change.

"I think that Levon Ter-Petrosyan will be able to help people, to make our country really prosperous," said schoolteacher Hasmik Hovannesyan, 54, as she cast her ballot.

Armenia is still officially at war with Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Yerevan has frosty relations with Turkey, in part because of a bitter dispute over the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I.