By Hasmik Mkrtchyan and Margarita Antidze
YEREVAN (Reuters) - President Serzh Sarksyan's Republican Party will keep its grip on power after a parliamentary election in Armenia on Sunday, an exit poll showed after voting ended in the South Caucasus country.
The exit poll released by Gallup International Association put the party on course to win more than 44 percent of the votes in an election that passed off without any of the violence that marred the last national poll in 2008.
Its main partner in the previous coalition, the Prosperous Armenia party led by businessman Gagik Tsarukyan, was trailing in second place on nearly 29 percent of the votes, it showed.
"It's clear who has won," Gallup's Andrey Raychev told Armenia TV channel, which published the exit poll.
He said the exit poll would be updated within two hours, and the Central Election Commission is expected to start receiving the first results from regional polling stations across the country of 3.3 million by midnight (2000 GMT).
Many voters and Armenian leaders had hoped the election would be a landmark for democracy after voting irregularities marred the last parliamentary election in 2007 and clashes killed 10 people after the presidential vote in 2008.
More than 300 international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitored voting and will give their initial verdict on Monday.
One observer said privately there had been some violations, but it was clear how widespread or serious they were.
Ink stamps on the passports of people who had already voted had disappeared within 15 minutes, giving them the chance to vote again, the observer, who did not want to be named, said, citing several such reports.
The exit poll suggested three parties apart from the big two were likely to win the five percent of votes needed to enter parliament.
The Armenian National Congress, an opposition coalition led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, might also cross the seven-percent threshold set for blocs of parties to win seats, it showed.
The Central Election Commission said turnout had passed 51.53 percent three hours before the polls close.
There were no reports of violence, an encouraging sign for a country that wants stability to boost the economy, devastated by a war with neighboring Azerbaijan in the 1990s and then the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.
Voters trickling to the polls in bright sunshine hoped the election would be a landmark for democracy after criticism by international observers over Armenia's elections since the end of communist rule.
"I hope that not one or two, but several parties will be elected. It will help there to be discussions in the new parliament and laws adopted for the sake of people," Gohar Karapetyan, a 48-year-old teacher, said after voting at a school built in the Soviet-era and decorated with the national flag.
The parties have made social problems and economic issues the main slogans of an election campaign that has been unusually active for Armenia, Russia's main ally in the region.
There are no major differences in their economic programs, which call for more active development of domestic industry and continuation in cooperation with Russia as well as international financial organizations.
A blast at a campaign rally injured about 150 people on Friday, briefly raising fears of violence, but emergency officials said it was caused by gas-filled balloons exploding.
Armenia nestles high in the mountains of a region that is emerging as an important transit route for oil and gas exports from the Caspian Sea to energy-hungry world markets, although it has no pipelines of its own.
Although a ceasefire was reached in 1994, its conflict with Azerbaijan over the tiny Nagorno-Karabakh region remains unresolved and a threat to stability.
Relations with another of its neighbors, Turkey, are also fraught because Ankara does not recognize the killing of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War One as genocide.