Armenia leader set to win re-election, rival cries foul

Incumbent Serzh Sarkisian took a commanding lead following Armenia's presidential election Monday, officials said, while his main challenger refused to acknowledge defeat, crying foul.

Early tallies from more than 30 percent of precincts showed Sarkisian leading with 61.82 percent of the vote compared with 33.62 percent for former foreign minister Raffi Hovannisian, the Central Elections Commission said.

Turnout was 60 percent in the polls seen as a crucial democratic test for the former Soviet state.

Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesman of Sarkisian's ruling Republican Party, said exit polls showed the president "was the only favourite" and called the vote "the best in the history of independent Armenia", rejecting allegations of fraud.

But Hovannisian insisted that he was the true winner and called on Sarkisian to concede defeat.

Sarkisian "must become Armenia's first president who recognises the people's victory," Hovannisian said.

Hovannisian's campaign has alleged a range of sometimes bizarre violations, such as the use of "vanishing ink" to allow multiple voting and "caravans" of taxis and buses to take pro-government voters to the polls.

Police have dismissed the allegations as an "obvious fiction".

A Gallup exit poll found Sarkisian, president since 2008, set for re-election to another five-year term with 58 percent of the vote to 32 percent for Hovannisian and the other five candidates in the single digits.

Former prime minister Hrant Bagratian was on course for three percent, as was the Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hayrikyan, the exit poll found.

The outcome had become predictable in December when the highly popular leader of the Prosperous Armenia party -- super-rich former arm-wrestling champion Gagik Tsarukian -- said he was out of the race and Armenia's first post-Soviet president Levon Ter-Petrosian said he was too old for the country's top job.

The vote was clouded both by the lack of strong opposition to the incumbent, as well as a mysterious assassination attempt against Hayrikyan last month.

The authorities were hoping for a peaceful process that would improve the country's chances of European integration.

The vote that brought Sarkisian to power in 2008 ended in clashes in which 10 people died.

Hovannisian said the election marked "the most crucial day in our country's modern history" but denounced alleged irregularities in voters' lists and voting procedures.

"These were shameful elections with a huge number of violations. The results of the exit poll do not show reality but what the authorities wanted," Hovannisian's spokesman Hovsep Khurshudian told AFP.

He vowed that Hovannisian's supporters would stage a protest on Tuesday evening.

International observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe have monitored voting and are set to give their verdict on Tuesday.

Sarkisian, 59, is a veteran of the 1990s war with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh and derives much of his popularity from a tough can-do militaristic image.

Hovannisian, 54, was born in the United States and practised law in Los Angeles before moving to Armenia following its devastating December 1988 earthquake.

All the candidates have made populist promises to fight poverty and unemployment.

The World Bank estimates that 36 percent of Armenians live below the poverty line, while economic hardship and unemployment have driven nearly a million Armenians out of the country over the past two decades.

But campaigning has also focused on Armenia's long-running disputes with neighbours Turkey and Azerbaijan.

No final peace deal has been reached with Azerbaijan over the Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani region of Nagorny Karabakh as the risk of a new conflict remains palpable.