The party of Armenia’s new prime minister has a commanding lead in Sunday’s snap parliamentary election, early returns show, an outcome that would help further consolidate his power.
The charismatic 43-year-old Nikol Pashinian took office in May after spearheading massive protests that forced his predecessor to step down.
Mr Pashinian has pushed for an early vote to win control of a parliament that was dominated by his political foes.
An ex-journalist turned politician, Mr Pashinian has won broad popularity, tapping into public anger over widespread poverty, high unemployment and rampant corruption in the landlocked former Soviet nation of three million that borders Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran.
With 29 out of the nation’s 2,010 precincts counted, Mr Pashinian’s My Step had 59% of the vote, while the Republican Party that controlled the old parliament was a distant fourth with just 5%.
The pro-business Prosperous Armenia party was coming second with 15% of the ballot, and the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party was winning about 10%.
By the time the polls closed at 8pm on Sunday (1600 GMT) 49% of the nation’s eligible voters had cast ballots. Full preliminary results are expected on Monday.
Mr Pashinian exuded confidence after casting his ballot in Yerevan, saying that he was sure that his party would win a majority in parliament.
During the month-long campaign, Mr Pashinian has blasted members of the old elite as corrupt, and pledged to revive the economy, create new jobs and encourage more Armenians to return home.
“An economic revolution is our top priority,” Mr Pashinian told reporters Sunday.
Armenia has suffered from an economic blockade stemming from the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan that has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the end of a six-year separatist war in 1994.
Attempts to negotiate a peace settlement have stalled and fighting has occasionally flared up between ethnic Armenian forces and Azerbaijan’s soldiers.
Both Azerbaijan and Turkey have closed their borders with Armenia over the conflict, cutting trade and leaving Armenia in semi-isolation. The country has direct land access only to Georgia and Iran.
About one-third of Armenia’s population has moved to live and work abroad and remittances from those who have left account for around 14% of the country’s annual GDP.
After seven months on the job, Mr Pashinian has remained widely popular, particularly among the young.
“Pashinian has put fresh blood in our veins. I believe in the future of Armenia,” said computer expert Grigor Meliksetian, 24.
Others were not so optimistic.
Bella Nazarian, an entrepreneur, said Mr Pashinian has skilfully manipulated public hopes.
“He’s a populist and a liar,” she said. “I believe that people’s eyes will open as early as the coming spring.”
Mr Pashinian was the driving force behind the protests that erupted in April when Serzh Sargsyan, who had served as Armenia’s president for a decade, moved into the prime minister’s seat, a move seen by critics as an attempt to hold on to power.
Thousands of protesters led by Mr Pashinian thronged the Armenian capital, and Mr Sargsyan resigned after only six days in the job.