Supporters of People's Party
leader Stepan Demirchyan

Citizens of the tiny Caucasus mountain republic of Armenia  vote for a new parliament this Sunday under the watchful eye of international observers, who are on alert for any potential ballot-rigging.

The election is seen as a chance for Armenia to redeem itself after presidential elections this past spring, which drew sharp criticism from the United States and Europe for being marred by cheating.

Latest opinion polls indicate opposition parties may gain ground at the expense of pro-government groups in the 131-seat parliament. That, however, would still not be enough to challenge the authority of President Robert Kocharian.

Before the voting, concerns were being expressed by observers and opposition parties that the parliamentary election would be as tainted as the last one.

"The hopes for an improved election are, I would say, unfounded," said Andreas Gross, a monitor with the Council of Europe, a Strasbourg-based human rights and democracy body who visited Armenia this month. 

A former Soviet republic state, Armenia has been left impoverished by a war in the early 1990s with its neighbour Azerbaijan.

It has also been regularly consumed by political turmoil at home.

The nation of three million people lies in the middle of a region which is soon to become a vital crossroads for the export of crude oil from the Caspian Sea to world markets with the
construction of a US-backed pipeline.

Armenia is hoping to eventually join the European Union, but foreign diplomats have warned that Armenia’s ambitions could be dashed if the current election is also rife with fraud.
 
Kocharian won his presidential vote in a second round run-off on 5 March, but international observers reported cases of ballot boxes being stuffed and voters being bribed or intimidated.

Hamlet Abramian, deputy chairman of the Central Election Commission, said the criticism which followed the presidential election had been constructive and said he was hopeful of a fair vote this Sunday.

"There is no such thing as an ideal election but I think we will see a step forward," he said. "If there are shortcomings then that is the fault of the parties and candidates, not just the election commission."

About 600 foreign observers, including missions from the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, will be watching the polling to check for violations.

Voters can choose from 17 parties and four blocs, but polls indicate that the main contest will be between the pro-Kocharian groups and the People's Party led by Stepan Demirchyan.