Armenian president re-elected, exit poll says

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Photo -   Armenian President Serge Sarkisian casts his ballot during presidential election in Yerevan, Armenia Monday, Feb. 18, 2013. 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. Six other candidates are on the ballot. (AP Photo/PanARMENIAN Photo, Tigran Mehrabyan)
Armenian President Serge Sarkisian casts his ballot during presidential election in Yerevan, Armenia Monday, Feb. 18, 2013. 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. Six other candidates are on the ballot. (AP Photo/PanARMENIAN Photo, Tigran Mehrabyan)
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YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Armenian President Serge Sarkisian, who has overseen a modest economic recovery in his country, was re-elected in a national election on Monday, according to an exit poll.

The poll of 19,130 voters conducted by Gallup and other pollsters and carried by ArmNews TV showed Sarkisian winning 58 percent of the ballots. The closest of his six rivals, the American-born Raffi Hovanessian, who was post-Soviet Armenia's first foreign minister, polled 32 percent.

Just over 60 percent of Armenia's 2.5 million eligible voters cast ballots in the election for the country's top official, according to the Central Election Commission. Full preliminary results are expected Tuesday.

A strong performance by Sarkisian appears to have helped him avoid a runoff, which would be required if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote.

Sarkisian's victory had been widely expected. He 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 conflict shows no signs of imminent resolution despite years of international mediation attempts.

The top challenger, Hovanessian, accused Sarkisian of losing the arms race with Azerbaijan. He also contended that billions of dollars have disappeared from the state budget because of corruption under Sarkisian, and emphasized the large number of 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.

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 wounded.

But Sarkisian adroitly reduced tensions by talking with critics and allowing opposition protests. The next year, parliament granted a sweeping amnesty to hundreds of people who had been arrested in the post-election violence.

This year's presidential campaign lasted only a month, but was packed in drama that included the shooting of one candidate and another contender going on a hunger strike.

Paruir Airikian, the candidate who was shot in the shoulder in a mysterious attack, finished third Monday with 3 percent of the ballot, according to the exit poll, apparently thanks to the outpouring of sympathy for him over the shooting.

A fringe candidate, political analyst Andrias Gukasian, has been on a 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."

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Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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