* Armenian president wins second five-year term
* Opposition party alleges fraud, protest planned
* International observers see lack of genuine competition
By Hasmik Mkrtchyan
YEREVAN, Feb 19 Armenian President Serzh
Sarksyan promised on Tuesday to make the country secure and
stable after cruising to victory in an election which
international vote monitors said lacked real competition.
But Sarksyan faces a challenge in his second five-year term
to prevent tensions increasing with Azerbaijan over the enclave
of Nagorno-Karabakh that could lead to a new war in the South
Caucasus, where pipelines carry Caspian oil and gas to Europe.
Preliminary results showed Sarksyan won 58.6 percent of the
votes cast in Monday's election, enough to avoid a second-round
run-off. His closest rival, U.S.-born former Foreign Minister
Raffi Hovannisian, trailed on nearly 37 percent.
"Armenia chose the path towards a safe Armenia and I am
happy and proud of the fact that every resident of Armenia will
be on that path," Sarksyan, 58, told celebrating supporters.
International observers said the vote was an improvement on
recent elections in the former Soviet republic, including the
2008 presidential ballot in which 10 people were killed.
"However, the limited field of candidates meant that the
election was not genuinely competitive," representatives of the
Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe said in a statement.
"The candidates who did run were able to campaign in a free
atmosphere and to present their views to voters, but the
campaign overall failed to engage the public's interest."
Several of Sarksyan's potential rivals, most notably former
President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, decided not to run because they
feared the election would be skewed in the president's favour.
A minor candidate was shot and wounded during campaigning,
and police received 70 complaints of voting violations. The
result was in line with opinion polls, however.
One group, the opposition Heritage Party, alleged some
ballots cast for Sarksyan's opponents had been thrown out and
said it planned a protest in the capital Yerevan later on
Tuesday. It was not clear if other parties would take part.
Armenians had expected Sarksyan to win and there was little
celebrating. "I expect that things will get better in the next
five years. And after that of course we will need to change (the
president). That's all," said Yerevan resident Roza Atovyan.
Another woman in Yerevan, Elana Akapova, said: "The
president has a lot of administrative power. Therefore it's
natural that he received the majority of the vote."
The result strengthens Sarksyan's hold on Armenia, which
borders Iran, Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, after his
Republican Party won a parliamentary election last year.
Sarksyan's promises of economic recovery went down well with
voters in the country of 3.2 million, where more than 30 percent
live below the poverty line. The average monthly wage is about
$300 and unemployment was 16 percent last year.
Armenia is an important potential ally for the West which is
trying to ensure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, although
tightening international economic sanctions on its neighbours
could affect Armenia's trade and economy.
Sarksyan has outlined no big policy changes and investors
and foreign governments are worried by Armenia's fraught
relations with Azerbaijan.
FEARS OF NEW CONFLICT
About 30,000 people were killed in the war over
Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s and Azerbaijan uses its diplomatic
and economic muscle to isolate Yerevan. It has vastly increased
military spending in the last few years, alarming Yerevan.
Nagorno-Karabakh is an ethnic Armenian-majority enclave
inside Azerbaijan, which Armenia-backed rebels wrested from
Azeri troops. Firefights along the border still kill troops on
both sides and experts say a wider conflict is possible.
Sarksyan has accused Azerbaijan of threatening a new
conflict. Azerbaijan denies it is the aggressor and says
Armenians should hand back control of the mountainous enclave.
"In terms of domestic policy, we should expect a
continuation of deepening ties with the West and the European
Union," said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional
Studies Centre think tank in Yerevan.
He ruled out a breakthrough over Nagorno-Karabakh, saying:
"Both sides remain too far apart."
Without a shift in regional politics, durable economic
growth will be difficult for Armenia while its borders with
Azerbaijan and Turkey remain closed. Turkey shut the border in
1993 in solidarity with its ethnic kin in Azerbaijan.
Most regional pipeline projects between growing regional
power Turkey and the oil and gas-producing Azerbaijan isolate
Armenia, making Yerevan more dependent on ties with its
Soviet-era master Moscow, which has a military base on Armenian