February 18, 2008 / 11:20 PM / 11 years ago

PM forecast to win Armenian presidential election

YEREVAN, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Armenia votes on Tuesday in a presidential election that Prime Minister Serzh Sarksyan, given credit for swift economic growth and rising living standards, is expected to win.

Opinion polls give Sarksyan, a trusted ally of outgoing President Robert Kocharyan, more than 50 percent support in the vote, which investors say will be a test of stability for the tiny Caucasus nation.

“I assess my chances as very good. If in the coming days nothing extraordinary happens, the election will end in just one round,” Sarksyan, 53, told Reuters in an interview on Saturday.

The opposition says the campaign has been unfair and has vowed to take to the streets if it detects vote-rigging. Previous elections in Armenia have been followed by mass opposition protests alleging ballot fraud.

Voting opens at 8 a.m. (0400 GMT) and closes at 8 p.m. (1600 GMT) at 1,923 polling stations in 41 regions of the country of 3.2 million people. First results are expected on Wednesday.

Armenia, high in the Caucasus mountains, is in a region emerging as a transit route for oil exports from the Caspian Sea to energy-hungry world markets.

The energy flows could be threatened, analysts warn, if an unresolved conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan flares up again into fighting. A dispute between Armenia and another neighbour, Turkey, complicates Ankara’s relations with the West.

TEST OF STABILITY

Most observers predict that if Sarksyan is elected, his rule will be broadly a continuation of Kocharyan’s 10 years in office, which have been marked by economic growth and firm stands toward Azerbaijan and Turkey.

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 will take until his replacement is inaugurated.

Polls give Sarksyan a lead over the rest of the field, led by former speaker of parliament Artur Baghdasaryan and Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who was forced to resign as president in 1998 but is now seeking a comeback.

“If there is a second round I would prefer to fight against Levon Ter-Petrosyan,” Sarksyan told Reuters on Saturday.

“It will answer many questions and will bring calm to our country ... if there is a second round and Levon Ter-Petrosyan runs, he will lose overwhelmingly,” he said.

More than 300 foreign observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as dozens from the Council of Europe and other foreign organisations, will monitor voting.

Final results must be released within seven days of the vote. (Writing by Margarita Antidze; editing by Andrew Roche)

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