YEREVAN, Armenia – The campaign for Armenia's presidential election lasted only a month, but packed drama into the short time that included the shooting of one candidate and another contender going on hunger strike.
For all that, incumbent Serge Sarkisian is widely expected to cruise through Monday's voting easily, likely getting the 50 percent plus one vote tally necessary to avoid a second round. Seven other candidates are on the ballot.
Sarkisian's first term in 2008 started traumatically. Within weeks of his election, clashes between police and supporters of Sarkisian's vanquished challenger Lev Ter-Petrosian left 10 people dead and more than 250 injured.
But Sarkisian adroitly reduced tensions by talking with critics and allowing opposition protests. The next year, the parliament granted a sweeping amnesty to hundreds of people who had been arrested in the post-election violence.
He also has overseen a return to economic growth after years of stagnation, although the former Soviet republic still suffers from widespread poverty. World Bank figures for 2010, the most recent year tallied, show nearly 36 percent of the country living below the national poverty line. Average wages are about $300 a month.
The landlocked country's economy is hobbled by the longstanding closure of its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey, both connected with the occupation by Armenian troops and ethnic Armenian local forces of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. That frozen conflict shows no signs of imminent resolution despite years of international mediation attempts.
Since fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh ended in 1994, Azerbaijan has used its burgeoning oil wealth to restore its military. Sarkisian's main opponent, Raffi Hovanessian, has made accusations that Sarkisian is losing the arms race with Azerbaijan a main plank of his campaign.
The American-born Hovanessian, who was post-Soviet Armenia's first foreign minister, also contends that billions of dollars have disappeared from the state budget because of corruption under Sarkisian, and emphasizes the large number or Armenians leaving the country of 3 million to pursue better opportunities; the outward flow is estimated last year to have been about 3.3 people per 1,000 of the population.
But the criticisms appear to have gained little traction. Polling in early February by Gallup International foresaw Sarkisian getting 68 percent of the vote, with Hovanessian tallying 24 percent.
At the time of the poll, released Feb. 7, Paruir Airikian was running a distant third. But that was a week after he was shot in the shoulder in a mysterious attack and it is unclear how much sympathy for the shooting may have affected his total.
Airikian vowed repeatedly to ask the Constitutional Court to delay the balloting by two weeks — which is allowed if a candidate cannot campaign because of force-majeure events — but eventually backed off.
A fringe candidate, political analyst Andrias Gukasian, has been on hunger strike outside the national academy of sciences building in central Yerevan since the campaign opened Jan. 21, protesting alleged widespread vote-buying by Sarkisian's party.
An interim report on the campaign by the elections-monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that some of Sarkisian's campaign offices are located in government buildings and that "the distinction between campaign activities and state functions appears to be blurred."
Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.