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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Armenians Go to Polls To Choose President

YEREVAN, Armenia -- Weary of hardship and political strife, Armenians voted Monday for a new president they hope will bring peace and prosperity to their troubled Caucasus nation.

With international monitors keeping close watch on polling stations, voters chose from an array of 12 candidates. Two are considered leaders: Prime Minister Robert Kocharyan and former Communist Party boss Karen Demirchyan.

The election may be a turning point for Armenia, which since gaining independence in 1991 has been dominated by former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who was forced to resign last month.

Ter-Petrosyan was accused of rigging the last election in 1996. He also presided over the decline of Armenia's economy: Unemployment is estimated at around 20 percent while inflation topped 21 percent last year.

"We've finally shaken off the Ter-Petrosyan regime. Now we have a lot of hope and we are looking to the future," said Karen Smbatyan, a 66-year-old artist who voted for Kocharyan.

Public interest has been high, and election officials said voter turnout was greater than in previous elections. Sixty percent of registered voters had cast their ballots by evening, Interfax reported. There were no reports of incidents or irregularities by the time polls closed at 10 p.m.

Armenia, a former Soviet republic of about 3 million, is in the middle of the volatile Caucasus region and has endured political conflict since gaining independence.

In addition to post-Soviet industrial collapse, the country has suffered under a trade embargo by Azerbaijan and Turkey, imposed over the still-unresolved conflict over the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh.

All the candidates are promising to revive the economy and support independence for Nagorny Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians fought a war of secession from Azerbaijan and now consider themselves independent.

With little to distinguish the candidates' platforms, voters are choosing the next president largely on the basis of biographies.

Kocharyan, 43, is considered a talented administrator with abundant energy, economic savvy and little tolerance for corruption.

Kocharyan shares the public's hard line on Nagorny Karabakh: He is a native of the region, and was president of the enclave before being appointed Armenia's prime minister last year.

As a campaign issue, Nagorny Karabakh comes far behind the economy. Public anger over unemployment and the decline of social welfare has swelled support for Demirchyan, 65, whom many remember fondly from his 14 years as the Soviet regime's top official in Armenia.

"He's already governed. He did a lot for Armenia and we think he'll do it again," said Sonia Ovasasyan, a physician who gave Demirchyan her vote. The third major candidate is Vazgen Manukyan, 51, a former prime minister who lost the tainted 1996 election to Ter-Petrosyan. Manukyan's public support fell earlier this month after his supporters were blamed for provoking a clash at an election rally that put four people in the hospital.

If no candidate wins an outright majority, a run-off will be held March 30.

The election is the first since the troubled 1996 ballot, and international observers and Armenians alike were keeping a close eye on the voting.

Still, many Armenians expressed optimism that this time their country would have a clean vote.

"There might be some violations, but not as many as before," said Grant Avetisyan, a retired museum director. "Things will be better. The country is finally going to get on its feet."