Armenia's ruling Republican party leads in parliament vote: exit poll

YEREVAN (Reuters) - President Serzh Sarksyan’s ruling Republican Party appeared to have taken a clear lead in elections in ex-Soviet Armenia on Sunday, an exit poll showed, laying the foundation of a new parliamentary system of government.

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Under constitutional changes critics say were designed to prolong Sarksyan’s political life after his final presidential term ends next year, the presidency will become largely ceremonial. Power passes to the prime minister.

Sarksyan, the 62-year-old leader of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), has repeatedly denied that the changes, approved in a December 2015 referendum were made to allow him to retain power.

An exit poll by Baltic Surveys/The Gallup Organization, reported by Armenian television, put the Republican Party on 46 percent of votes cast. The opposition Tsarukyan’s Alliance led by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukyan trailed on 25 percent.

Sarksyan has been president since 2008 but his second term expires next year. Under the new system, critics say, he could keep wielding executive power by becoming prime minister in 2018, stay active by remaining leader of the RPA or quit politics but continue exercising influence via a handpicked successor.

The exit poll showed that an opposition bloc Yelk (Way out) got 10 percent, while the government-loyal Dashnaktsutyun Party got 5 percent, a minimum needed for the party to enter parliament.

Republicans and Dashnaktsutyun, coalition partners in the current parliament, are likely to create a coalition again, getting the right to name the future prime minister, who is expected to be incumbent Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan.

Many Armenians accuse the government of corruption and of mishandling the troubled economy.

Armenia depends heavily for aid and investment on Russia, which has been hard hit in the past three years by an economic downturn. Armenia has felt the impact, with growth falling to 0.2 percent last year from 3.0 percent in 2015.

Political analysts say unrest could erupt after the vote, partly due to a growing malaise over the economic slowdown.

“The situation is especially tense, due to the deepening level of discontent and dissent,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Centre in Yerevan.

Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by