* Voters to elect new parliament in close race
* Parliament will pick president under reforms
* Tense election may trigger unrest, analysts warn
(Adds voting under way, comments)
By Hasmik Mkrtchyan
YEREVAN, April 2 Armenians voted for a new
parliament on Sunday in a closely fought race between the ruling
party and a former coalition partner that heralds the start of a
parliamentary system of government.
Under constitutional changes critics say were designed to
prolong the political life of President Serzh Sarksyan,
parliament, not voters, will elect the president for the first
time. That role will become largely ceremonial while the office
of prime minister will become more powerful.
Voting got under way at 0400 GMT and would last until 1600
GMT in the country with about 2.6 million eligible voters.
Sarksyan, the 62-year-old leader of the ruling Republican
Party of Armenia (RPA), has repeatedly denied that the changes,
which were approved by the electorate in a December 2015
referendum, were made for his benefit.
He has been president since 2008 but his second term
expires next year. Under the new system, critics say, he could
keep wielding executive power by becoming prime minister, stay
active by remaining leader of the RPA or quit politics but keep
exercising influence via a handpicked successor.
The outcome of Sunday's vote was difficult to predict, with
polls showing the RPA neck-and-neck with an opposition alliance
led by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukyan.
His alliance has ruled in coalition with the RPA before, but
it is not clear whether it would agree to do so again if, as
expected, it fails to win enough support to rule alone.
The ruling party still wields considerable support and its
main campaigner, Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, who was
appointed in September, is a popular figure and the RPA
candidate for the post of the prime minister after this vote.
"I'm very optimistic, but time will show (who will win)," he
said after voting.
Many Armenians, however, accuse the government of corruption
and of mishandling the troubled economy.
Armenia depends heavily for aid and investment on Russia,
which has been hard hit in the past three years by an economic
downturn. Armenia has felt the impact, with growth falling to
0.2 percent last year from 3.0 percent in 2015.
"Voters should vote for (our) party, which will change laws
and will change life," Tsarukyan said after voting at a polling
station in his native town of Abovyan, about 20 km north-east
from the capital Yerevan.
"Economic growth is impossible in the current situation."
Political analysts say unrest could erupt after the vote,
partly due to a growing malaise over the economic slowdown.
"The situation is especially tense, due to the deepening
level of discontent and dissent," said Richard Giragosian,
director of the Regional Studies Centre in Yerevan.
(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Tom