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Armenia votes after presidential candidate's shooting

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Armenians began voting Monday in presidential elections already marred by the non-fatal shooting of an opposition candidate and the lack of any high-profile alternative to incumbent Serzh Sarkisian.

Monday's poll will test the small Caucasus nation's democratic credentials two decades after the Soviet Union's collapse -- a period defined by persistent tensions with neighbouring Azerbaijan and a friendship with Russia.

The authorities are above all hoping for a peaceful process that will improve the country's prospects of European integration, after the disputed presidential elections that brought Sarkisian to power in 2008 ended in clashes in which 10 people died.

Sarkisian has called for the elections to be "exemplary" and stressed that the resource-poor nation of three million had "no future" if its polls cannot correspond to European standards.

Most opinion polls give Sarkisian a strong lead and the fractured opposition forces have failed to find a common challenger to the incumbent leader.

The leading challenger is 54-year-old former minister Raffi Hovanissian. He was born in the United States and practised law in Los Angeles before moving to Armenia following its devastating earthquake of December 1988.

The Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hayrikyan -- the target of the failed assassination attempt last month that nearly delayed the polls -- and ex-premier Hrant Bagratian are the other main figures among Sarkisian's seven challengers.

The Gallup International Association shows Sarkisian on course to win 68 percent of the vote against Hovanissian's 24 percent. Hayrikyan has single-digit approval ratings.

International observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe are monitoring the voting which is due to end at 1600 GMT.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130217/armenia-votes-after-presidential-candidates-shooting