YEREVAN Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan is likely to win a new five-year term on Monday after an election campaign marred by an assassination attempt on one of his rivals and a hunger strike by another.
Opinion polls suggest Sarksyan's victory is all but certain. He is on target to win more than 60 percent of the votes in the small, landlocked country in the South Caucasus, with the next of the other six candidates barely in double figures.
Sarksyan's supporters say an election free of the violence and fraud that tainted the last presidential election in 2008, when 10 people were killed in clashes, would show the former Soviet republic is on the road to political stability and help sustain its economic recovery after years of war and upheaval.
"People expect from the president that he will be able to provide security and sustainability for our country," Prime Minister Tigran Sarksyan told Reuters in an interview in Yerevan, the capital of the country of 3.2 million people.
"Based on that, all social-economic problems, and first of all unemployment, can be solved.
But there are still questions about stability in a country that is locked in a dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, the tiny region over which a war was fought in the 1990s between Armenians and Azeris.
Tensions over the mountainous enclave still pose a threat to peace in a region where pipelines take Caspian oil and natural gas to Europe.
These concerns were underlined in an attempt to kill Paruyr Hayrikyan, 63, an outsider in the election. He was shot in the shoulder on January 31 in an incident which for a while threatened to force the vote to be delayed for two weeks.
Another outsider in the race, Andrias Ghukasyan, has been on a hunger strike since the start of the campaign to press demands for Sarksyan's candidacy to be annulled and for international observers to boycott the vote.
A third candidate, Arman Melikyan, says he will not vote on Monday because he believes the election will be slanted in the president's favor. Other potential candidates did not take part in the race for similar reasons.
Officials from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said they found a lack of interest in the election and a lack of confidence about the electoral process among the public when they visited the country in January.
"This is a matter of great concern, in particular given that major political parties, which were strongly expected to present presidential candidates, chose not to do so because of their lack of trust in the conduct of the election," they said.
YEARNING FOR STABILITY
Sarksyan's supporters dismiss the concerns, saying the election will be a step towards greater stability and democracy two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed. A parliamentary election last May, won by Sarksyan's Republican Party, passed off without any major violence.
Despite the concerns over democracy, the economy has been the dominant theme of the election campaign.
Armenia's economy collapsed in the chaos that followed independence in the 1990s, when 30,000 people were killed in a war over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave inside Azerbaijan that is mainly populated by ethnic Armenians.
Residents cut down all the trees in central Yerevan to use as firewood during this time. The trees have since grown back.
After a sharp economic contraction of 14.2 percent in 2009, growth was about 7.0 percent in 2012 and the government expects it to exceed 6.0 percent this year. Annual inflation was 3.2 percent in 2012.
But the nominal monthly salary is still about $300 and more than 30 percent of the population live below the poverty line. Unemployment stood at 16 percent in 2012.
Opponents accuse Sarksyan of not doing enough on the economy but many Armenians simply want stability, hoping this will help raise living standards.
"Armenia has gone through very difficult times - war, all sorts of turmoil," said Ruzanna Gomtsyan, 69. She finds it hard to make ends meet on her $100 monthly pension and relies on her son sending money to her from Moscow.
"We've had enough. We don't want instability in our country anymore," she said.
Political stability is also a concern for foreign investors and the governments of the main regional powers.
Yerevan is still an ally of Russia, which has a military base in Armenia, but has fraught relations with Turkey, in part because Ankara does not recognize as genocide the killing of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War One.
President Sarksyan has accused Azerbaijan of threatening a new war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku denies it is the aggressor in the conflict and says Armenia should hand back control of Nagorno-Karabakh.
"Diplomatically we are far from a solution and what we really lack is political will," said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center think tank in Yerevan.
(Writing by Timothy Heritage)