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Incumbent Is Likely Victor in Vote for Armenian Leader

Incumbent Is Likely Victor in Vote for Armenian Leader
President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia voting on Monday.
President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia voting on Monday.

MOSCOW — Armenians went to the polls on Monday in an election that seemed certain to return President Serzh Sargsyan to office for a second five-year term, and to maintain stability in a country that has become an increasingly important, if uneasy, United States ally in monitoring Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

A veteran politician, Mr. Sargsyan, 58, is generally viewed as having presided over modest economic improvements in recent years, even as the country has struggled because of closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, its enemy in a continuing war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

But while Mr. Sargsyan’s victory has been predicted for months, there have been some unexpected developments in the campaign. One challenger, Andreas Ghukasian, a political commentator who manages a radio station in the capital, Yerevan, has been on a hunger strike, demanding that the incumbent be removed from the ballot.

Another challenger, Paruir A. Airikyan, was shot in the shoulder in late January in what the authorities described as an assassination attempt, although there was no known motive. He is a former Soviet dissident who promoted Armenian independence and has run unsuccessfully for president several times.

Mr. Airikyan briefly considered invoking a constitutional provision to delay the election for two weeks as a result of his injury, but he ultimately decided to allow the balloting to proceed.

Mr. Sargsyan’s expected second term will be watched closely for any sign of progress in resolving the war with Azerbaijan and for any indication that Armenia would reduce support for economic sanctions against Iran, as they make life more difficult in both countries.

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh continues at a low simmer with periodic violence along the line of contact, including frequent exchanges of gunfire and occasional casualties. Peace talks led by the so-called Minsk Group, which is led by the United States, Russia and France, have mostly stalled.

Armenia has traditionally relied heavily on Iran as an economic partner, but those ties are now constrained by the sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran insists its purposes are peaceful, but Western powers accuse Tehran of seeking the technology to build nuclear weapons and have imposed a broadening array of United States, United Nations and European Union sanctions.

Armenia has supported the measures, while continuing to engage in some trade that circumvents them, like swapping its electricity for natural gas from Iran with no money changing hands.

“Having Iran as your economic lifeline is not a good position to be in,” said one senior Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified to avoid creating any tension with players in the region.

“They have been very, very careful, very, very good, at some cost to Armenia, to honor international U.N., U.S. and E.U. sanctions against Iran,” the diplomat said. “But it’s increasingly difficult for them to do that.”

International election observers have fanned out across Armenia in recent days. Initial reports suggested that Mr. Sargsyan’s party had made some inappropriate use of government resources to promote his candidacy, a common criticism of incumbent candidates in former Soviet republics. But observers say the overall political climate has improved, with opposition candidates, for instance, enjoying better access to coverage by the news media.

Still, Armenia faces a peculiar problem when it comes to potential election fraud because of the hundreds of thousands of Armenian citizens who live abroad, including in the United States — one of the largest percentage diasporas in the world given Armenia’s population of 3.1 million, according to the World Bank.

With few exceptions, absentee balloting is not permitted. That means the Armenian election rolls are filled with the names of people who will not appear in person to vote, creating the potential for fraudulent use of those names.

Mr. Sargsyan faced relatively weak competition after his two strongest potential challengers and their parties announced last year that they would not compete — former President Levon Ter-Petrossian of the Armenian National Congress and Gagik Tsarukyan of the Prosperous Armenia Party. Mr. Tsarukyan is a wealthy businessman, lawmaker and the head of Armenia’s national Olympic committee.

Mr. Sargsyan and his wife, Rita, paused Monday to speak with reporters after voting in Yerevan. “I have voted for the security of our citizens and our families,” he said, according to aysor.am, an Armenian news site.

A version of this article appeared in print on February 19, 2013, on page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: Incumbent Is Likely Victor In Vote for Armenian Leader.

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