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Armenia set to hold parliamentary elections on Sunday

Associated Press logo Associated Press 1/04/2017 By AVET DEMOURIAN, Associated Press

YEREVAN, Armenia — Armenians are set to cast ballots Sunday in the first parliamentary elections since the ex-Soviet nation modified its constitution to expand powers of parliament and prime minister.

Polls show the party of Armenia's president, Serzh Sargsyan, in the lead.

Critics have seen the amendments as part of efforts by Sargsyan to retain control of the country after he steps down in 2018 due to term limits. If his party controls parliament, he could be appointed prime minister after leaving the presidency.

The 62-year-old Sargsyan, who has led Armenia since 2008, has rejected the allegations, describing the constitutional changes approved in a 2015 referendum as a step toward strengthening democracy.

"We have set a task to make resolute step toward developing a European-style democracy and strengthening democratic institutions," Sargsyan said recently. "We will do everything to hold elections in conformity with high international standards."

The constitutional changes, set to take force after Sargsyan's term ends, envisage largely symbolic powers for the nation's president who will be elected by parliament instead of popular vote like in the past.

Sargsyan's Republican Party has been leading in the polls, closely followed by a bloc led by businessman Gagik Tsarukian, one of Armenia's richest men.

Prime Minister Karen Karapetian has spearheaded the Republican Party's campaign, barnstorming across the country and promising to encourage foreign investment in the economically struggling nation.

Tsarukian also has pledged to attract up to $15 billion in foreign investment from Persian Gulf countries and elsewhere.

The nationalist Dashanktsutyun party and two other parties also are expected to make it into the parliament.

Sergei Minasian, an independent political experts based in Yerevan, said that the ruling party has a "significant advantage" thanks to the use of administrative and propaganda resources.

The European Union has offered financial and technical support to Armenia to facilitate a free and fair election. In a statement earlier this week, the EU mission in Yerevan expressed concern about "allegations of voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties." It didn't name any names.

Some opposition leaders warned that they would stage protests against possible violations.

Armen Ashotian, a deputy head of the Republican Party, said that he sees no threat of instability.

"I'm sure that law enforcement agencies wouldn't allow any attempts to undermine the statehood," he said. "I don't see any danger now."

Armenia has seen some unrest in recent years. In 2015, thousands of demonstrators rallied in Yerevan for weeks protesting electricity price hikes in the nation's most serious unrest in years.

Last July, several dozen armed men captured a police compound in the capital, demanding freedom for an opposition activist and the government's ouster. They held several police officers and medics as hostages before eventually releasing them. The two-week siege left two people dead and several wounded, and triggered rallies in support of the gunmen and occasional clashes with police.

In March, several hundred protesters rallied in the Armenian capital after an activist who passed food to perpetrators of the siege died in prison while on a hunger strike.

Landlocked Armenia borders Iran, along with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. It has suffered from a crippling economic blockade imposed by Turkey, which supports its ally Azerbaijan in the conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Armenia, one of the poorest of ex-Soviet nations, is a member of Moscow-dominated economic and security alliances and hosts a Russian military base.

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Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to the report.

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