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Armenians vote in divisive referendum

Armenians have voted on constitutional changes that supporters say would strengthen democracy, but critics warn facilitates a power grab. If passed, powers would be shifted from president to prime minister.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan cast his ballot on Sunday in Yerevan and left without making any statements ahead of the result. But earlier this week he said the proposed constitutional changes would bring political stability.

"We will have a political stagnation in the country, if we don't support these changes," Sargsyan told reporters earlier this week. "The changes will make cooperation between different branches of government more effective ... and facilitate economic development and the protection of human rights."

Despite warnings from domestic critics, the proposed changes have won praise from at least one international body. The Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe rights watchdog composed of independent experts on constitutional law, said the reform represents a "further important step forward in the transition of Armenia towards democracy."

Großkundgebung im Zentrum der Armeniens Hauptstadt Eriwan Armenien

Thousands of Armenians rallied in Yerevan protesting authoritarianism under President Sargsyan

Opposition rallies over fears of power grab

But opposition parties and activists have held demonstrations in recent months, saying the reforms are designed to extend Sargsyan's rule by transferring executive powers from the presidency to the parliament. The holder of the presidency is constrained by term-limits while the leader of the parliament is not.

Raffi Hovannisian, an opposition figure, tore his ballot at the polling station in protest.

"The system, which is based on one person and one party who just want to strengthen their positions by this referendum, is unacceptable," Hovannisian told reporters.

Crowds as large as 5,000 have rallied in the capital - a significant turnout in the former Soviet republic of less than 3 million people. Opposition parties have said the changes would allow Sargysan, who came to power in 2008 following deadly protests, to rule indefinitely.

"If adopted, the amendments will perpetuate the rule of Sargysan and his Republican Party," said Aram Manukyan, an MP from the opposition Armenian National Congress party.

The 61-year-old president recently refused to repeat his earlier pledges not to run for any government office after his second and last term as president expires.

Polls closed at 8 p.m. (1600 UTC). Results are expected Monday.

jar/sms (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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