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Armenia premier’s bloc winning vote, early returns show

FILE - In this file photo taken on Thursday, April 26, 2018, Nikol Pashinian gestures as he speaks to demonstrators gathered at Republic Square in Yerevan, Armenia. Armenians are set to cast ballots in parliamentary elections expected to cement the incumbent prime minister's grip on power. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits, File)

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Early returns from Armenia’s snap parliamentary election Sunday show the country’s new prime minister’s bloc with a commanding lead — 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. Pashinian has pushed for early vote to win control of a parliament that was dominated by his political foes.

An ex-journalist turned politician, Pashinian has won broad popularity, tapping into public anger over widespread poverty, high unemployment and rampant corruption in the landlocked former Soviet nation of 3 million that borders Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran.

With 185 out of the nation’s 2,010 precincts counted, Pashinian’s My Step was garnering 66 percent of the vote, while the Republican Party that controlled the old parliament was a distant fourth with just under 4 percent, struggling to overcome a 5-percent barrier to make it into parliament. The pro-business Prosperous Armenia party was coming second with about 11 percent of the ballot, and the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party was winning about 8 percent.

By the time the polls closed at 8 p.m. (1600 GMT, 11 a.m. EST), 49 percent of the nation’s eligible voters cast ballots. Full preliminary results are expected Monday.

Pashinian exuded confidence after casting his ballot in Yerevan, saying that he was sure that his bloc will win a majority in parliament.

During the monthlong campaign, 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,” 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 percent of the country’s annual GDP.

After seven months on the job, 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 weren’t so optimistic.

Bella Nazarian, an entrepreneur, said Pashinian has skillfully 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.”

Saak Mkhitarian, 37, a video engineer, said he was worried about what he described as Pashinian’s divisive rhetoric.

“He wants to create an internal enemy and hates those who don’t share his beliefs,” Mkhitarian said.

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 Pashinian thronged the Armenian capital, and Sargsyan resigned after only six days on the job.

Sargsyan has stayed out of the public eye since stepping down and refused to answer reporters’ questions after voting Sunday. His Republican Party has largely remained on the defensive.

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