Armenian President Serge Sarkisian smiles as he casts his ballot during presidential election in Yerevan, Armenia Monday, Feb. 18, 2013. Armenian President Serge Sarkisian was re-elected for a second term in the first round of the ex-Soviet nation's presidential election, according to an exit poll Monday.The poll of 19,130 voters conducted by Gallup International and carried by ArmNews TV showed Sarkisian winning 58 percent of Monday's ballot. (AP Photo/PanARMENIAN Tigran Mehrabyan)
YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Armenia's president easily won a second term, according to preliminary election results Tuesday, but his main rival claimed vote fraud and thousands of his supporters held a protest rally.
President Serge Sarkisian received nearly 59 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff, Tigran Mukuchian, chairman of the country's Central Election Commission, said Tuesday.
The 58-year-old Sarkisian was widely expected to win. He has overseen a return to economic growth after years of stagnation, although the former Soviet republic still suffers from widespread poverty.
The closest of his six rivals, American-born Raffi Hovanessian, got 37 percent of the vote.
Hovanessian, Armenia's first foreign minister after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, on Tuesday called the election unfair and rigged, claiming cases of ballot-box stuffing and voters being coerced to back Sarkisian.
At a protest rally in the capital that drew 2,000-3,000 people, Hovanessian declared himself the genuine winner and called on Sarkisian to arrange a transfer of power by Wednesday evening.
The rally ended peacefully, but some participants later held a march chanting "Raffi is president."
Just over 60 percent of Armenia's 2.5 million eligible voters cast ballots in Monday's election, the election commission said. All the votes have been counted, but the winner will not be officially declared until Feb. 25.
International observers from the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe say the election "lacked competition," but they noted improvements over the previous poll.
OSCE observers said the fact that several influential politicians decided not to run may have "contributed to apathy and a lack of trust among voters."
Observer mission chief Tonino Picula said Tuesday that competition is "critical" if Armenia wants to live up to democratic aspirations.
Another OSCE news conference in Yerevan, this one by its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, was disrupted Tuesday when protesters stormed the room, jeering and demanding that OSCE representatives leave the country.
"You're legitimizing an illegal vote by your declarations!" said one protester, Artur Minasian.
He and other protesters would not say whether they backed Hovanessian or another opposition candidate.
The landlocked country's economy is hobbled by the longstanding closure of its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Both neighbors reject the occupation by Armenian troops and ethnic Armenian local forces of Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh region. That conflict shows no signs of resolution despite years of international mediation attempts.