Tehran, YJC. Incumbent Serzh Sargsyan likely to win re-election in vote marred by non-fatal shooting of one candidate.
Armenians have begun voting in presidential elections already marred by the shooting of an opposition candidate and the lack of any prominent alternative to incumbent Serzh Sargsyan.
The government is hoping for a peaceful election that will improve the country's prospects of European integration, after the disputed presidential elections that brought Sarkisian to power in 2008 ended in clashes in which 10 people died.
Sargsyan has called for the elections to be "exemplary" and stressed that Armenia has "no future" if its polls cannot correspond to European standards.
"Armenia does not have oil and gas like [its neighbour and foe] Azerbaijan. The only serious factor in relations with Europe can be a democratic image," said Armenian Sociological Association head Gevorg Pogosyan.
Most opinion polls give Sargsyan a strong lead and the fractured opposition forces have failed to find a common challenger to the incumbent leader.
The 59-year-old Sargsyan is a veteran of the 1990s war with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and derives much of his popularity from a tough can-do militaristic image.
The top challenger is the 54-year-old former minister Raffi Hovanissian.
He was born in the US and used to practise law in Los Angeles before moving to Armenia following its devastating earthquake in December 1988.
The Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hayrikyan, the target of a January 31 assassination attempt that nearly delayed the polls, and ex-premier Hrant Bagratian are the other main figures among seven challengers to Sarkisian.
Another candidate, Arman Melikyan, said he would not vote on Monday because he believed the election would be slanted in Sargsyan's favour.
A Gallup poll shows Sargsyan on course to win 68 percent of the vote against Hovanissian's 24 percent. Hayrikyan has single-digit approval ratings.
International observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe will monitor voting, which was scheduled to end at 1600 GMT.
Officials from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said they found a lack of interest in the election and a lack of confidence about the electoral process among the public when they visited the country in January.
"This is a matter of great concern, in particular given that major political parties, which were strongly expected to present presidential candidates, chose not to do so because of their lack of trust in the conduct of the election," they said.
The outcome became predictable in December when two influential political figures capable of injecting some suspense into the campaign announced they would not run.
The highly popular leader of the Prosperous Armenia party, the super-rich former arm-wrestling champion Gagik Tsarukian, said he was out of race. And Armenia's first post-Soviet president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, said that at age 68 he is too old for the country's top job.
Still, the candidates have been busy making populist promises to fight poverty and unemployment.
The World Bank estimates that 36 percent of Armenians live below the poverty line.
Economic hardship and unemployment have driven nearly a million Armenians out of the country over the past two decades.
Campaigning has also focused on Armenia's long-running disputes with arch-foe neighbours Turkey and Azerbaijan.
No final peace deal has been reached with Azerbaijan since the 1990s war over Nagorno-Karabakh, and the risk of a new conflict remains palpable.
* Source: Al Jazeerah