The snap parliamentary election was called by Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in a bid to resolve public anger over the peace deal he signed after the disastrous war with Azerbaijan that triggered months of protests demanding his resignation.
Polls have opened in Armenia for early parliamentary elections which were called in an attempt to heal divisions after a disastrous war with Azerbaijan, but could spark post-election protests.
Reformist Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who has lost much of his lustre after a military defeat last year to arch foe Azerbaijan, is hoping to renew his mandate but is in a tight race with former president Robert Kocharyan.
During an aggressive campaign marred by polarising rhetoric, Pashinyan said he expected his Civil Contract party to secure 60 percent of the vote, though some pollsters say those estimates are far-fetched.
The election in the South Caucasus country of around three million people will be watched by Armenia's Soviet-era master Russia as well as Turkey, which backed Azerbaijan in last year's six-week war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Political observers say the election result is hard to predict with voter apathy running high and both Pashinyan and Kocharyan drawing massive crowds in the final days of the race.
Besides Kocharyan, who hails from Karabakh and was in power between 1998 and 2008, two other leaders of post-Soviet Armenia are backing parties in the race.
All three are in opposition to Pashinyan.
A venomous campaign saw candidates exchange insults and threats and both frontrunners are expected to stage demonstrations after the election.
Pashinyan, 46, brandished a hammer at rallies, while Kocharyan, 66, said he would be ready to fight the prime minister in a duel and claimed he was planning to rig the vote.
'Time for change'
Armenian President Armen Sarkisian, largely a ceremonial figure, decried attempts "to incite hatred and enmity" and urged law enforcement to prevent any violations.
"These elections are taking place in a difficult situation," he said on Saturday. "They are of crucial importance for our state and people."
Pashinyan supporters fear the return of the old guard and say the former newspaper editor, who swept to power in 2018, deserves another chance.
"We need to support this man, the leader who has found himself in a difficult situation due to objective reasons – the war, depressed people, and enemy countries' everyday aggression," said one voter, 29-year-old Ani Sargsyan.
The prime minister's critics accuse him of ceding swathes of territory in and around Karabakh to Azerbaijan in a truce agreement that ended last year's fighting and of failing to deliver on reform promises.
"We are tired of the current government," said Ashot Hagopyan, 63. "There has been too much lying to our people so we have decided it's time for a change."
War over Karabakh
Pashinyan says he had to agree to the Moscow-brokered truce with Azerbaijan in order to prevent further human and territorial losses.
More than 6,000 people were killed last fall in the six weeks of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.
In 1991, the Armenian military occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, or Upper Karabakh, internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory, and seven adjacent regions.
On September 27, 2020, the Armenian army launched attacks on civilians and Azerbaijani forces and violated several humanitarian ceasefire agreements.
During a subsequent 44-day conflict which ended under a deal signed on November 10, Azerbaijan liberated several cities and nearly 300 settlements and villages from Armenian occupation.
Kocharyan, who counts Russian leader Vladimir Putin among his friends, faces a corruption probe. He was also investigated over a deadly crackdown on protesters more than a decade ago.
Some observers say Pashinyan stands much to lose if he is voted out of power and might be investigated over his handling of the Karabakh war.
A poll released Friday by MPG, a group affiliated with Gallup International Association, showed Kocharyan's Armenia bloc leading narrowly with 28.7 percent to 25.2 percent for Pashinyan's party.
Following in third with 10.8 percent was an alliance linked to Pashinyan's enemy and predecessor Serzh Sargsyan.
A record four electoral blocs and 21 parties are running for election but only a handful are expected to win seats in parliament.
Around 2.6 million people are eligible to vote to elect for a five-year term the minimum number of 101 parliament members under a proportional electoral system.
A winning party or alliance needs to obtain at least 50 percent of seats plus one and can be assigned additional seats in order to form a government.
Polls opened at 8:00 am (0400 GMT) and will close 12 hours later in an election being monitored by observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.