YEREVAN (Reuters) - Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarksyan won a presidential election on Tuesday, an exit poll showed, but his opponents said the vote had been rigged and called their supporters onto the streets to protest.
Sarksyan, who has said he will continue the policies of outgoing President Robert Kocharyan, won 57 percent of the vote, the exit poll showed.
Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosyan, first president of Armenia after it won independence from the Soviet Union, scored 17 percent, according to the poll by Britain’s Populus pollster carried out for Armenian public television.
But Ter-Petrosyan’s aides said he was the real winner and announced a protest rally in the capital Yerevan on Wednesday.
“The first president of Armenia won in the first round. We would like to congratulate citizens with that victory,” said Ter-Petrosyan’s spokesman Arman Musinyan.
“There were very serious violations during voting, including ballot-stuffing, kidnapping and the beating of our representatives at the polling stations,” he said.
Land-locked Armenia relies heavily on an alliance with Moscow and remains poor despite swift recent economic growth.
High in the Caucasus mountains, it 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 world markets.
Analysts warn that a still-unresolved conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh could flare up again into violence.
Stalled efforts to reach a peace deal are likely to be the biggest challenge facing the new president.
If the exit poll is matched by official results, Sarksyan will have enough votes to win outright without a second round runoff.
Voting returns were trickling in from polling stations around the country of 3.2 million people perched high in the Caucasus mountains.
With an estimated 20 percent of the vote counted, central election commission figures gave Sarksyan 193,921 votes, with Ter-Petrosyan lagging far behind with 52,548 votes.
Election officials did not say what share of the votes cast this represented or exactly what proportion of the vote had been counted.
Sarksyan, after voting in Yerevan, said the priority was for Armenia to conduct a free and fair election. His campaign team said late on Tuesday they were waiting for definitive official results before making a statement.
Previous elections in Armenia have been followed by days of opposition protests alleging ballot fraud. A new round of protests will be a test for stability in a country which, in the 1990s, was rocked by political convulsions.
Election observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe will give their verdict on the vote on Wednesday. Their assessment is likely to be a key factor in whether the opposition protests build momentum.
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.
He and Sarksyan, both natives of Nagorno-Karabakh and veterans of its 1990s war with Azerbaijan, are credited with overseeing a period of double-digit economic growth after economic meltdown under Ter-Petrosyan.
Writing by Margarita Antidze and Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Andrew Roche