YEREVAN -- Armenians are voting in snap parliamentary elections with tensions running high following months of political crisis fueled by the defeat of Armenian forces by Azerbaijan in a six-week war over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian called the early elections in response to sustained opposition rallies and dissent within the state over his handling of the war that ended with a Moscow-brokered cease-fire in November.
The fragile peace deal restored Baku's sovereignty over a chunk of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts that had been controlled by ethnic Armenian forces since a war in the early 1990s. The defeat stunned Armenians, and prompted months of recriminations and political infighting.
Pashinian, who swept to power after leading large anti-establishment protests in 2018 that ousted his predecessor, has witnessed his approval fall from 60 percent before the war to about 24 percent.
A total of 21 parties and four alliances are taking part in the June 20 vote. But polls show the contest to be mainly a neck-and-neck race between Pashinian's Civil Contract party and the newly created Armenia Alliance of former President Robert Kocharian, with each mustering about 24 percent support.
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Despite Pashinian's dwindling poll numbers, the former journalist has shown he can still draw thousands of supporters to rallies.
In response to criticism, he has defended concessions to end the war as a regretful but realistic move that prevented Turkish-backed Azerbaijani forces from taking control over the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region. He has also blamed previous administrations for wasting diplomatic opportunities and endemic corruption that left the military unprepared.
More than 6,000 people were killed in the autumn war and thousands of civilians displaced, while the Armenia-Azerbaijan border area remains tense and the long-term fate of the peace deal uncertain.
Nearly 2.6 million people are eligible to vote, though there are indications turnout might be low. Early results are expected late on June 20, but the final results may not be known for days or even weeks.
Kocharian, a native of Nagorno-Karabakh, ran a campaign promising security, economic growth, and resolving political tensions.
'I voted for a dignified peace and economic growth, this is my choice,' Kocharian told reporters after casting his ballot on June 20.
Asked about his electoral chances, he replied, 'Do you doubt them'?
Former President Robert Kocharian greets supporters during an election campaign rally in Yerevan on June 18.
In addition to being president between 1998 and 2008, he was one of the leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh's separatist forces during the early 1990s war and became the region's first de facto president between 1994 and 1997.
While president of Armenia, he was accused of acting unlawfully by sending police to disperse postelection protests in Yerevan in 2008. Eight demonstrators and two police officers died in the clashes.
Pashinian was one of the organizers of the 2008 protest and was ultimately jailed until being released in 2011 under a government amnesty.
Kocharian was later charged over the deadly crackdown on protesters and spent about a year and a half in pretrial detention. He was cleared of criminal charges earlier this year in a case the former president said was a politically motivated attack by Pashinian, but still faces a separate corruption probe.
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During the election campaign, emotionally charged threats and insults have raised concerns of postelection political violence, especially in the event of allegations that the result is rigged or otherwise challenged.
On the eve of the election, the largely ceremonial President Armen Sarkisian urged voters to remain peaceful, saying it would be unacceptable that 'political and moral boundaries are crossed, that the situation escalates and hatred and enmity are fomented.'
The outcome of the vote may hinge on which smaller parties clear a 5 percent threshold and which political alliances cross the required 7 percent hurdle to enter parliament.
If no party or alliance wins an outright majority, Pashinian or Kocharian will have six days to cobble together a coalition with smaller parties.
Failure to find a coalition leads to a runoff vote between the two top parties or alliances that determines the final distribution of seats under Armenia's so-called 'stable majority' rule.
That provision automatically gives the winner of the runoff 54 percent of the legislature's seats. Remaining seats would be divided as mandated by the first-round results.
Yerevan-based political analyst Benyamin Poghosian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that barring any 'extraordinary' last-minute developments, he thinks 'no party or alliance can get enough votes to form a one-party government.'
'It is clear to me that we are likely to have either a coalition government or a runoff,' he said.
With reporting by dpa
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036