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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Armenia Votes for President

YEREVAN, Armenia -- Votes were being counted late Monday after a presidential election runoff seen as a test for democracy in Armenia and for peace in the entire Caucasus region.

The contest for a five-year term between Prime Minister Robert Kocharyan, the acting head of state, and Armenia's former Soviet Communist party boss, Karen Demirchyan, is under scrutiny because of concerns over past flawed elections in the former Soviet republic.

The vote is also being closely followed in the West because of the impact of the result on the country's decadelong conflict with its oil-rich neighbor Azerbaijan over territory.

Mutual recriminations and reports of irregularities began pouring in almost as soon as polls had opened Monday morning across the mountainous land of 4 million.

"There are massive violations going on across the country. We are getting more complaints than we can even keep up with," said Demirchyan's campaign chief, Armen Khachataryan.

Kocharyan's press spokesman Aghvan Vartanyan dismissed the charges, which he said were designed to discredit the election. He said supporters of Demirchyan handed out anti-Kocharyan leaflets in violation of the law. Demirchyan's campaign denied the allegations.

"Demirchyan's people are spreading rumors in order to cast a shadow over the election," Vartanyan said. He also said there were instances of ballot-box stuffing by Demirchyan's supporters.

Central Elections Commission officials confirmed they had received reports of irregularities during the day.

The commission chairman, Khachatur Bezirdzhyan, said the reports were being investigated and that some had already proven untrue.

Voters filed into polling stations decked out in red, blue, and orange Armenian flags on a cool and windy day. The electoral commission said that by 9 p.m., 56 percent of the 2.3 million electorate had voted. First results are expected Tuesday.

Foreign observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose 150 monitors watched the election, said it was too early to pass judgement on it.

They said significant fraud had occurred in past Armenian elections after the end of voting when ballots are tabulated and that they would focus on the counting process.

Kocharyan took 39 percent of the vote in the first round March 16 to Demirchyan's 31 percent. Ten others were eliminated. Some pre-election polls gave Demirchyan a big lead and others showed a dead heat. The OSCE reported widespread violations in the first round, especially by Kocharyan supporters, but said they did not affect the overall result.

Armenia has been thrown a lifeline of more than $1 billion of Western aid since independence in 1991, which some say helped it avert famine. Diplomats say further support may depend on a clean election and abetter democratic record.

Monitors say Armenian elections in 1995 and 1996 were tainted by fraud. Former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan used tanks and troops to stifle protests after the 1996 vote.

Kocharyan, voting at a Yerevan dental clinic, said steps had been taken to limit abuses that blighted the first round.

"We've tried to take the [OSCE] recommendations into account. I think it will be much better," he said.

Demirchyan, smiling and in high spirits, predicted a win. "I'm planning on victory. My chances are high if the election is fair and free. I voted for the Armenia of my dreams," he said.

Foreign companies are investing heavily in neighboring Azerbaijan's Caspian oil fields, but its unsolved conflict with Armenia over the Nagorny Karabakh region remains a time bomb.

Ter-Petrosyan, who had led Armenia since independence from Moscow, walked out of the presidency last month after prime minister Kocharyan, a native of Karabakh, blocked his attempts at compromise with Azerbaijan.